Friday, June 15, 2007


Maurice Hilleman may be the most important person you've never heard of. World over, millions of lives have been saved by this man, and the living, breathing people he saved, going about business as usual, don't even know it.

Do you know anyone who has ever had the measles? The mumps? Rubella? Me neither. That's because Mr. Hilleman spent his life developing vaccines against these diseases, along with a whole host of others including hepatitis A and B and chickenpox. Besides his numerous scientific accomplishments, Hilleman lead a fascinating life. His mother and twin sister both perished due to complication from birth, but Maurice survived. His father, unable to look beyond the painful circumstances of his birth, sent him to be raised by his aunt and uncle. By doing so, his father unknowingly set in motion an astounding series of events that would lead to his son becoming the most important figure in microbiology and vaccinology.

Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul A. Offit, MD
details the life and circumstances of Maurice Hilleman. I found this biography fascinating from beginning to end. In a former life, I was a chemist for a large pharmaceutical company, and I have a degree in biology, so this was right up my alley. However you need not be a science geek like me to understand and enjoy this man's story.

Also, instead of simply detailing the history of one man and his journey, Offit also delves into the scientists, scientific practice and history that came before Hilleman. I was fascinated (and a little grossed out) when I read that the first vaccine against small pox was made by draining pus from blisters of a girl who was infected with cow pox and injecting the untreated pus into another person. The. Pus. Ok, so maybe I was a lot grossed out, but still! Fascinating! Offit also throws in fun bits of trivia and humor, which helps the book read more like a novel than a biography.

Science aside, several chapters deal with the politics of vaccines. Even though this is a touchy subject for some, I feel that Offit does a nice job of compiling the facts and presenting them in a way that few would find offensive. I have always been a supporter of childhood vaccinations. I've done plenty of homework to back up my beliefs, so I was surprised to find a lot of new-to-me information on the history of the vaccination debate. A debate that is still raging today.

Maurice Hilleman died in April of 2005 at the age of 85. Despite a laundry list of titles and awards, he never won the most coveted of scientific prizes, the Nobel Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously. He developed cancer, and he spent the last few months of his life experimenting on cells he had taken from his own body. Not surprising, when you consider that this was the man who swabbed his own daughter's throat and used the resulting cultures to make his vaccine against the mumps. Unfortunately, Hilleman's final experiments were never completed.

Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases is a fitting tribute for Hilleman. "Because of Maurice Hilleman, hundreds of millions of children get to live their lives free from infections that at one time might have permanently harmed or killed them. In the final accounting, no prize is greater than that."


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1 comment:

slouching mom said...

Nice review! Thanks for pointing me to it! I enjoyed the book also, and I too started pro-vaccine and am now only more so (though perhaps also a little grossed out at what is actually IN those vaccines ;).