Considered one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, medical scientist and vaccine expert Dr. Maurice Hilleman is directly responsible for preventing illnesses in thousands, perhaps millions of children’s lives. 

At a film showing on Sunday night, attendees of the National Community Pharmacists Association Annual Convention (NCPA) screened Hilleman: A Perilous Quest to Save the World, a documentary that unravels the story of Dr. Hilleman–the man responsible for developing more than 40 vaccines, including those for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, and rubella.

“Eight million children every year owe their existence to him,” Paul Offit, MD, who produced and narrated the film, told Pharmacy Times in an interview. Dr. Offit, who himself developed the widely-used rotavirus vaccine, detailed Dr. Hilleman’s life and his contributions to vaccine research.
Hilleman was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and given 6 months to live. Before Hilleman’s death in 2005, Dr. Offit filmed a series of interviews with the innovator and his peers, and featured several pieces of rare archival footage and animation to bring insight into Dr. Hilleman’s quest for preventing infectious diseases.

Dr. Hilleman grew up in Montana during the Great Depression, where he developed an interest in microbiology and science. He was admitted to Montana State University with a full scholarship, where he graduated at the top of his class and later went on to receive his PhD in microbiology and chemistry from the University of Chicago. He went on to lead an impressive career, working for the US Army, E R Squibb & Sons, and Merck.

In 1963, when Dr. Hilleman’s daughter contracted mumps, he swabbed the back of her throat. Four years later, he invented the vaccine for mumps using the strain he collected from his daughter.

The film provides several takeaways for pharmacists, who have taken on an increasingly active role in vaccines, especially in influenza vaccination, according to Dr. Offit. He urged pharmacists to emphasize the importance of vaccination to their patients, and to make sure that there is an understanding that as immunity wanes, deadly diseases can and will return.