The greatest scientist ever?

The world has marveled at the speed with which the vaccines for covid-19 were developed. The time of less than one year is the quickest on record. What was the previous record holder? It was the vaccine for mumps, which took four years. But that vaccine was developed in 1967 by a scientist named Maurice Hilleman working with just two assistants, without all the technology that is now available to quickly sequence the virus genome and the problem attacked by large international teams with huge amounts of funding.

In a recent episode of Radiolab they discussed the life of Hilleman, arguing that he may be perhaps the greatest scientist that ever lived. Such superlative claims are always problematic but I was taken aback because I had never heard of him before. But after listening to his achievements, I can well see how a case could be made for him over the household names of Einstein, Darwin, and Newton.

Until now, the fastest vaccine ever made – for mumps – took four years. And while our current effort to develop a covid-19 vaccine involves thousands of people working around the clock, the mumps vaccine was developed almost exclusively by one person: Maurice Hilleman. Hilleman cranked out more than 40 other vaccines over the course of his career, including 8 of the 14 routinely given to children. He arguably saved more lives than any other single person. And through his work, Hilleman embodied the instincts, drive, and guts it takes to marshall the human body’s defenses against a disease. But through him we also see the struggle and the costs of these monumental scientific efforts.

The list of vaccines he developed includes chicken pox, adenovirus, measles, mumps, rubella, Japanese encephalitis, meningococcus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae type B. Yet when another vaccine developer Paul Offit, who worked for 26 years to develop the rotavirus vaccine that many children now take, told a group of 35 to 40 pediatricians in 2005 that Hilleman had just passed away, not a single one had heard of him. Offit says that this was because of Hilleman’s humility, that he was too busy working to stop and take a bow.

Anthony Fauci also paid tribute to him.

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Hilleman had “little use for self credit.” Dr Fauci told the BMJ that Hilleman’s contributions were “the best kept secret among the lay public. If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, nobody was more influential.”

Hilleman was interviewed late in his life and he said this:

Well, looking back on one’s lifetime, you’ll say, gee, what have I done? Have I done enough for the world to justify having been here, you know? That’s a big worry to people from Montana, at least. And I would say I’m kind of pleased about all this. I’m not smug about it, but I’m pleased because there’s a great joy in being useful. And that’s the satisfaction that you get out of it.

Debates about who is the greatest in anything are usually pointless but I think it is clear that Hilleman’s name should be much better known than it currently is.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    But after listening to his achievements, I can well see how a case could be made for him over the household names of Einstein, Darwin, and Newton.

    I can’t. He may well be the scientist who made the biggest single contribution to human health (I don’t know), but did he change our understanding of how the (biological) world works? Or even make a significant contribution to that understanding?

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @3: Choose your own metrics. As I said, I don’t know. You could look at drop in mortality rates over some period due to a new drug/vaccine/procedure.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Reminds me of James Clark Maxwell. Obviously physicists know him, but considering how important he was his almost complete obscurity to the person in the street is baffling.

    I’d never heard of Hilleman either, who h is also surprising given his achievements. Where is the popular biography of him?

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojblake @5: Clerk, pronounced Clark.

    Huh, fame. People know about Schrödinger because of the bloody cat, and that’s about it. Frankly, I don’t give a damn and I doubt they would have.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Interesting. It’s common to pronounce incorrectly a word you’ve only ever seen written, but never heard. I’ve heard Maxwell referred to many times, but I can’t recall ever seeing his middle name written down, hence my error. Thanks!

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