Continental Divides

The Wicked Problems of Our Time

When the 1957-1958 Asian flu swept the nation, Miles City native Dr. Maurice Hilleman, the undisputed 'father of vaccines,' sprang into action, quickly developing and producing a vaccine that saved the lives of 'hundreds of thousands' of U.S. citizens

By John McCaslin

It’s been almost two years since Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the nation’s first ever “vaccine choice” law, born from Montana House Bill 702 and soon to be riddled with holes by a federal judge who ruled key sections unconstitutional and in conflict with U.S. statutes.

Refusing to capitulate, Republican lawmakers in Helena stormed back this ongoing session with further anti-vaccination proposals, one that would permit parents simply to opt out of Montana school vaccine requirements given “personal” or “moral” beliefs. 

Which, if you ask me, is a careless if not dangerous assault on proven childhood vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella; chickenpox, rotavirus, and hepatitis A and B. And there’s plenty of other safe and effective vaccines obviously being taken for granted here, protecting us from polio, meningitis, dengue fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, influenza, pneumonia and, fear it or not, COVID-19.

Republican Rep. Greg Kmetz of Miles City remains so concerned about COVID-19 vaccines that just last month he filed a bill banning blood bank donations from 632,771 fully vaccinated Montanans, our governor among them.

What I find ironic is it that Kmetz represents the same Montana district that in 1919 brought this planet esteemed U.S. microbiologist Dr. Maurice Hilleman, the undisputed “father of vaccines.”

Born and raised by an aunt and uncle (his mother and twin sister died during his delivery) on a farm outside Miles City, Hilleman during his career would develop eight of 14 vaccines still routinely administered in America’s immunization schedule – measles and mumps to hepatitis A and B.

When asked about his extraordinary medical discoveries – he went from being a young clerk at the J.C. Penney in Miles City to E.R. Squibb, Walter Reed Medical Center, and Merck, where he retired as chairman – Hilleman gave credit to the chickens he raised as a boy along Montana’s Tongue River, their eggs being the foundation for many of his vaccines.

A graduate of Montana State University who went on to earn a microbiology doctorate from the University of Chicago, Hilleman all told developed 40 vaccines, many not dissimilar to today’s COVID vaccines.

Like when the 1957-1958 Asian flu swept the nation, taking the lives of 69,000 Americans, Hilleman sprang into action, quickly developing and producing a vaccine that saved the lives of “hundreds of thousands” of U.S. citizens.

During the 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic, the Miles City native was able to produce a life-saving vaccine in only four months’ time – with no outcry whatsoever from the politicians in Helena or Washington, D.C.

When Hilleman’s daughter came down with highly contagious mumps in 1963, the doctor-dad promptly swabbed her throat, isolated the virus, and used it as a building block for a mumps vaccine strain still administered today and bearing her name, “Jeryl Lynn.”

All said and done, Hilleman’s immunological accomplishments could fill a book. Take his hepatitis B vaccine, licensed in 1981, which had an added bonus of becoming the first ever shot to prevent one form of cancer. 

Hilleman, by the way, also developed vaccines for farm animals he loved so much from his Montana upbringing.

In 1988, when President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor, he observed that beyond his course of routine infant vaccines, the microbiologist’s laboratory discoveries prevented cancers, blindness and deafness, and myriad other diseases and disabilities that had saved the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

When the Montanan died in 2005 at the age of 85, Dr. Anthony Fauci credited him for saving more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.

“The scientific quality and quantity of what he did was amazing,” Fauci said in Hilleman’s New York Times obituary, pointing to achievements in cancer research, immunology and vaccinology. “Just one of his accomplishments would be enough to have made for a great scientific career.”

Paying tribute to its accomplished graduate, Montana State University since 2016 has offered by invitation only the MSU Hilleman Scholars Program, its vision to advance leaders in the mold of Hilleman to “solve the wicked problems of their time.

“Hilleman Scholars receive the privilege of networks, mentors, and investors working with them to help advance a better future for not just themselves, but for Montana, our nation, and world,” MSU states.

“We fully expect, not unlike Dr. Hilleman, dividends will be paid on the investment received.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.