Parshat Vayeshev – Hating the lifesaver

Maurice Hilleman interviewed for the film 'Hilleman, a Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children.' (Screen capture/ YouTube)
Maurice Hilleman interviewed for the film 'Hilleman, a Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children.' (Screen capture/ YouTube)

Maurice Hilleman was born on August 30, 1919, on a farm in Miles City, Montana, the eighth child to his parents, Gustav and Anna. This was the height of the influenza pandemic that infected half a billion people and may have killed as many as 50 million worldwide.

Hilleman had a twin sister, but she was stillborn. Sadly, Hilleman’s mother also died just a few days after his birth. Her dying wishes were to be buried holding her daughter in her arms, and to have Maurice raised by his aunt and uncle, Robert and Edith Hilleman. Gustav’s brother and his wife lived next door and were childless, so they raised Maurice as their own, but he spent his youth working on his father’s farm. He partially attributed his later to success to the thousands of hours he spent working with the chickens.

It must have been a strange childhood, working alongside his biological brothers, but going home to his adopted parents every evening. It also had a huge impact on his worldview. Whereas, his father was a strict Lutheran, who believed in faith healing, Robert and Edith were more broad-minded and open to scientific ideas. Maurice was once caught in church reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

Graduating high school in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression, he managed to find a job at JC Penny, but one of his brothers pushed him to go to university. He earned a scholarship to Montana State College and majored in chemistry and microbiology. Graduating in 1941, he went on to attend the University of Chicago.

His Doctoral thesis was on chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease thought to have been caused by a virus. Hilleman showed that the condition was caused by a bacterial infection and could be treated with antibiotics. His research revolutionized the treatment of the disease.

In 1943, Hilleman married Thelma Mason and in 1944 he graduated university. He was offered professorships where he could concentrate on research, but Hilleman wanted to do something more practical. He was hired by pharmaceutical company E. R. Squibb & Sons.

Maurice Hilleman, circa 1958, as Chief of the Dept. of Virus Diseases. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Maurice and Thelma were unable to have children, so they adopted two daughters, Jeryl Lynn and Kirsten.

At the time, the US was concerned about a disease known as Japanese encephalitis, a brain infection which could cause headaches, vomiting, fever, confusion and seizures. The disease threatened American troops stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Hilleman developed a vaccine for it.

Next, in 1949, Hilleman became head of the Walter Reed Department of Respiratory Diseases, and over the next few years studied the ways in which the influenza virus mutates. He worked on developing a vaccine, but also realized that it that would need to be given annually, to account for the shift and drift of the virus.

In 1957 he noticed that Hong Kong was suffering from a particularly severe bout of Asian flu which he feared could become a pandemic. He and his colleagues worked solidly for nine days to isolate the virus strain, which was then used to create 40 million doses of the vaccine. Although 69,000 Americans died from the flu, Hilleman and his team saved the country from far worse. Public health officials estimated that without the vaccine, up to one million people could have died.

In 1957 Hilleman moved to Merrick & Co, where he continued to work on developing vaccines. His goal was to end childhood disease. His wife and daughters said he always kept a list in his pocket of the diseases he still wanted to cure.

Many vaccines are made by taking a live virus from a patient, and attenuating it by injecting it into chicken eggs, then taking a weaker version of the virus and repeating the process. The trick is to find the “goldilocks” zone, where the virus is no longer lethal and without serious side effects, but strong enough that it can boost the body’s immune system. Somehow, Hilleman had a golden touch when it came to developing vaccines. Maybe it was all that work with chickens back on the farm.

In all, he developed more than 40 vaccines.

The most famous story of Hilleman’s dedication is his development of the mumps vaccine. (Until 2020 the mumps vaccine held the record for the quickest development).

On March 21, 1963, at 1 am, his five-year-old daughter Jeryl Lynn came to him complaining that her throat hurt. Hilleman felt her neck and realized she had mumps. He told her to get back into bed (because there was no other cure at the time). He jumped into his car and drove up to the lab, which was about 20 minutes away. He collected his specimen-collecting equipment and came back home. He woke up Jeryl Lynn and swabbed her throat, then went back to the lab with the virus and started working on a vaccine. He joked that he had been searching for the perfect specimen while it was under his roof the entire time. Four years later, he and his team had developed a vaccine, which he named after his daughter. There is a photo of Jeryl Lynn holding her younger sister’s hand as she gets a dose of the mumps vaccine. As Hilleman said, it is probably the only time in history that a sibling was vaccinated with a strain that was taken from her sister.

In 1963, Thelma passed away, and a year later Hilleman married Lorraine Witmer.

He continued working on vaccines until his compulsory retirement in 1984, then returned as a consultant. He was a hard taskmaster, and an extremely strict manager. But he had no time for niceties, he had set himself the goal of saving as many lives as possible. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, “Of the fourteen vaccines currently recommended in the United States, Maurice developed eight.”

Hilleman explained, “It goes back to that ethic of doing something useful, being useful to the world.”

Among the vaccines he developed were chickenpox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, meningococcus, measles, mumps, and rubella. He was also the first to combine viral vaccines, when he created the MMR vaccine to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella. Instead of six separate injections, children needed just two shots now.

I remember watching the Brady Bunch episode when the entire family got measles (I know, “Is there a doctor in the house” was first aired in 1969, when I was only six months old, but it took a long time to get shown in New Zealand). Measles was so common that it made sense to have as a theme of a TV show. But for several decades measles became so rare that even top doctors had never seen a case. This is due to the work of Hilleman.

Fauci said, “Maurice was perhaps the single most influential public health figure of the twentieth century, if one considers the millions of lives saved and the countless people who were spared suffering because of his work.”

One might have expected Hilleman to receive a Nobel Prize for his work. Instead, towards the end of his life he received hate mail and death threats. In 1998, The Lancet published a paper by Andrew Wakefield which claimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Though the paper was since discredited and Wakefield stripped of the right to practice medicine, that claim was enough to create a movement of anti-vaxxers who saw Hilleman as evil. In 1998, The Lancet retracted the article, but unfortunately, the damage had been done, and measles has recently made a comeback.

Hilleman died of cancer on April 11, 2005. Before he died he was the subject of a film about his life and work. You can see many clips of interviews with him on the internet.

In one clip, his enormous humility comes through.

Looking back on one’s lifetime you 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.’

His daughter, Jeryl Lynn, agreed. “The world should be better for you having been in it,” he always said, “And everybody should make some kind of contribution no matter how small.”

Hilleman added:

There’s a great joy in being useful and that’s the satisfaction that you get out of it. Other than that, it’s the quest of science and winning a battle over these damn bugs you know. That’s the scientists’ war and when there’s a spin off to help mankind, fine, I like that.

Everyone has heard of Edward Jenner, who discovered the smallpox vaccine, and everyone knows of Jonas Salk who invented the polio vaccine. But Hilleman remains virtually unheard of today.

Fauci, who first met Hilleman while working on a vaccine for HIV, described him as,

Straight-shooting and sometimes irascible, Maurice combined a phenomenal intellect with the ability to get things done. He locked his eye on a target and went after it, with boundless energy, purpose, and enthusiasm. He had an engaging, dry sense of humor, often tinged with a sense of irreverence.

“Straight-shooting and sometimes irascible” are perhaps words that could also be used to describe Joseph in this week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev. Although he would go on to save Egypt and the surrounding population, Joseph was perhaps not so pleasant to be around. Hilleman was raised separately from his brothers but got on well with them. In contrast, Joseph was raised together with his brothers, but they wanted to kill him. They viewed him as their father’s favorite, and after his dreams of dominance they thought he was trying to usurp power for himself.

The brothers totally misread Joseph’s intent. He was not saying he wanted to be better than the rest. He knew he was better than everyone else. He wasn’t interested in power structures or authority, because he knew he had a mission – a mission to save the world.

In the end, his brothers did not kill him, but sold him and he ended up as a slave in Egypt. Even there, he was unable to keep his head down, but strove for a leadership position, eventually rising to become the head of Potiphar’s household.

After Joseph was falsely accused of raping Potiphar’s wife, he was thrown into jail. But even this was no more than a minor setback for him. He knew that he still had a task to do. In a short time, he was basically running the prison and counselling Pharaoh’s disgraced advisors.

In fact, Joseph is always known in Rabbinic literature as “Joseph the Righteous” because he almost never set a foot wrong. The only criticism the rabbis have of him is that after interpreting the dream, he asked the royal butler to remember him to Pharaoh. Joseph was so anxious to save the world that he didn’t want to wait for the Divine plan to play itself out in the fullness of time.

Like Hilleman at the end of his life, Joseph in this week’s Torah portion was hated by many. Yet like Hilleman, Joseph saved millions from death through his actions. Sometimes one has to act with total dedication and selflessness, even if it is interpreted by others as an attempt to overturn authority.

With thanks to Radiolab, who spoke about Hilleman in their episode entitled, “The Great Vaccinator.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. Beginning December 22nd, I’m beginning a new nine-part series at WebYeshiva on Rabbis of the 19th Century. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes by registering on the website.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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