Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The End of an Era: Maurice Hilleman, Ph.D.

The obituary of a pioneer in vaccine development, Maurice Hilleman, Ph.D., appeared today. Dr. Hilleman worked since 1957 at Merck & Co., Inc., and saved millions of lives by developing vaccines against mumps, measles, chicken pox, rubella, and other infectious diseases.

The praise in the obituary, reproduced below, was highly merited:

"It's safe to say his vaccines save in the order of eight million lives a year," said Paul A. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "I think it can be said without hyperbole that he was a scientist who saved more lives than any other modern scientist."

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called Hilleman's collective life work "unparalleled."

Dr. Hilleman, who lived in Springfield Township, Montgomery County, near the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, spent most of his career working for what is now Merck & Co., where his focus was always on the practical application of science, not simply research for the sake of research. "Science has to produce something useful," Dr. Hilleman said in a 1999 Inquirer article that profiled his life. "That's the payback to society for support of the enterprise."

... Hilleman also pioneered the development of vaccines against hepatitis A, hepatitis B and bacterial meningitis, among other diseases.

Early in his career, while working at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, Hilleman figured out how the flu virus undergoes genetic changes that can cause deadly flu pandemics. That knowledge is used every year by scientists concocting the annual flu vaccine.

When Hilleman's daughter, Jeryl Lynn, then 5, came down with mumps in 1963, he took a culture from her throat and took it to his lab, where he grew and isolated the mumps virus. That led in 1967 to the first vaccine against mumps, a disease that used to infect 200,000 children a year in the United States.

I came to know Dr. Hilleman quite well during my tenure at Merck, managing Merck Research Labs' internal scientific libraries at West Point, PA and Rahway, NJ, the major R&D sites. He was an avid customer of services (at the West Point library in particular) in his activity of writing superb review papers of the scientific literature on topics related to vaccines, preventive medicine, and even bioterrorism. We had numerous conversations in the privacy of my office when he came by to visit.

He shared my views that good science cannot be forced but must be nurtured, and that in particular, science libraries and access to scientific literature in both electronic and printed form were essential for the best science to occur. He was kind enough to write this letter to help in my championing of funding for the science library departments I managed.

The obituaries note that Hilleman was known for punctuating his talk with frequent "damn-its." "He was a wonderfully spirited, cantankerous character," as noted in the obituaries. This is quite true; however, in my conversations with him, such epithets were often directed at the opinions of those without scientific or medical credentials who were now making management decisions in many sectors of healthcare. His belief was that healthcare innovations would come from scientists and clinicians establishing mental connections and "pulling pertinent information together" throughout the biomedical literature to guide their research along creative and productive paths - and avoid costly paths already known somewhere to have not worked - not through "management mysticism" and the "syndrome of inappropriate confidence in computers." These expressions of mine amused Dr. Hilleman, who refused to use IT.

It is with regret that I was separated from my position in late 2003 along with approximately 4,400 others as a result of pipeline failures and failure to achieve double-digit profit growth, and could not continue my informatics advocacy. It is also with regret that I became aware of the recent closure of one of the library facilities I managed, as a result of now-former employees contacting me for references as they seek new employment in a tight market. As Dr. Hilleman might say, "damn it."

Dr. Hilleman died at age 85 and represents an older era of scientists who made their contributions the hard way - via dedicated use of grey matter and thorough exploration and knowledge of the scientific literature. He is reminiscent of an early mentor of my career, the late heart surgeon Victor P. Satinsky, M.D. of Hahnemann Medical College, who ran NSF science programs in the early 1970's for high school students interested in biomedicine. Dr. Satinsky was also a no-nonsense and highly inventive clinician who demanded critical thinking ("critical thinking always" was his motto) and the need for true expertise in biomedical science by those in leadership roles. My interests in medicine and computing, as well as many of my no-nonsense attitudes regarding clinical medicine, were formulated under his aegis. Perhaps that is why Dr. Hilleman and I seemed to see eye-to-eye on numerous matters.

Dr. Hilleman's death truly marks the end of an era. May he rest in peace.

Addendum: the article at Slate "The Unsung Vaccinologist" by Arthur Allen, who is writing a history of vaccination, captures Dr. Hilleman's essense well.

-- SS


InformaticsMD said...
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InformaticsMD said...

An updated link to Dr. Hilleman's letter about the science libraries is here.