Montana State University graduate Maurice Hilleman, who saved the lives of millions by developing a wide array of vaccines, will be inducted into Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in Helena at the State Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, March 5.
Hilleman will be honored along with Helen Piotopowaka Clarke, an educator and Indian rights activist, in a ceremony at 11 a.m.
A Miles City native, Hilleman graduated atop his class at what was then Montana State College in 1941 with dual degrees in chemistry and microbiology. His name often accompanies those of Jonas Salk and Louis Pasteur as pioneers who fundamentally changed the game in human health. The abstract on a National Institutes of Health obituary for Hilleman, who died in 2005, describes him this way: “Microbe hunter, pioneering virologist, and the world's leading vaccinologist.”
Over his career he developed dozens of vaccines. According to Paul Offit, who wrote the Hilleman biography “Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases,” history will remember Hilleman as the man who saved more lives than any other 20th century scientist.
Among Hilleman’s scientific achievements:
A hepatitis B vaccine that was the first vaccine to prevent a cancer in humans (liver cancer, or hepatoma).
A measles-mumps-and-rubella combination vaccine that marked the first time vaccines for different viruses were successfully combined in a single shot.
Vaccines for meningitis and pneumonia.
A mumps vaccine that came after Hilleman isolated the virus by swabbing the back of his daughter Jeryl Lynn's throat when she was stricken with the disease (50 years later it is still the basis for most mumps vaccines).
A more complete understanding of the ways different strains of the flu change slightly from year to year, which led to the practice of developing an annual seasonal flu vaccine.
The first successful prediction of a coming influenza pandemic and development of a vaccine that thwarted it, possibly saving close to a million people in 1957.
Maggie Ordon, curator of history at the Montana Historical Society, said nominations suggesting Hilleman should be included in the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans came from all across the state, with a particular concentration from residents of Miles City, where Hilleman is considered a favorite son.
Hilleman grew up in modest circumstances on his uncle’s farm just across the Tongue River from Miles City. Without the means to pay for college and considering an offer to work at the local J.C. Penney store, a scholarship to attend Montana State College launched Hilleman on the first step of his illustrious career.
A panel of experts in Montana history chooses those Montanans who will be honored. Two are inducted each year.
“The gallery was created in 1979 to honor Montanans who have made contributions of state or national significance to their selected fields while epitomizing the unique spirit and character that defines Montana,” Ordon said.
Both Clarke and Hilleman are fitting inductees, Ordon added. As Gallery of Outstanding Montanans inductees numbers 40 and 41, plaques honoring their achievements will hang in the Capitol’s west wing until 2023.
Mark Jutila, head of MSU’s Microbiology and Immunology Department, will accept the award for Hilleman.