Marco Cáceres di Iorio

Maurice Hilleman Was No Hero

Maurice Hilleman

Here’s a classic quote from Paul Offit, MD of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:

I think Maurice [Hilleman] was an unappreciated hero. He is really arguably the developer or the primary researcher on 9 of the 14 vaccines that we have. I would argue Maurice Hilleman’s work has saved more lives than any other scientist, and yet few know him, I think in part because he worked for a company. We don’t like our heroes to come from companies. We like them to come from academia. He was a unique combination of brilliant and profane. He was both profound and profane. Maybe it was his army experience, but I’ve never seen anybody curse as much as he does who was as brilliant as he is. He was just a very tough smart guy who got a lot done quickly and it was still never enough. He was an amazing guy, Maurice Hilleman.

Along with scientist Bernice Eddy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Merck microbiologist and famed vaccine developer Maurice Hilleman in 1960 also detected the cancer-causing wild virus SV40 (simian virus 40) which had contaminated the polio vaccines during the second half of the 1950s. The SV40 contaminated stocks of polio vaccine were never withdrawn from the market but continued to be given to American children until early 1963 (perhaps much later than that) with full knowledge of US federal health agencies. Between 1955 and early 1963, nearly 100 million American children had been given polio vaccine contaminated with the monkey virus, SV40.

Hilleman was concerned. SV40 had contaminated both Jonas Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) and the oral polio vaccine (OPV) being developed by Albert Sabin. The OPV had been undergoing human trial testing since 1957 and would ultimately be distributed in 1962. In a video interview (start at 6:25), Hilleman can be heard saying:

So anyway I went down and talked to [Albert Sabin], and he said well, why are you concerned about it? Well, I said “I’ll tell you what, I have a feeling in my bones that this [SV40] virus is different, I don’t know why to tell you this, but I just think this virus will have some long term effect.” And he said what? And I said, “cancer.” I said Albert, you probably think I’m nuts, but I just have that feeling. Well, in the meantime, we had this virus and put it into monkeys and into hamsters. So we had this meeting, and that was sort of the topic of the day, and the jokes that were going around were that “gee, we would win the Olympics because the Russians would all be loaded down with tumors.”

Asked why the information about SV40 did not make it into the newspapers at the time, Hilleman answered:

Well, I guess it did, I don’t remember. We had no press release on it. Obviously, you don’t go out, this is a scientific affair within the scientific community… but, anyway we knew it was in our seed stock from making vaccines. That virus, you see, is one in 10,000 particles, is not inactivated by formaldehyde. It was good science at the time because that is what you did… you didn’t worry about these wild viruses. So then the next thing you know… three, four weeks after that we found that there were tumors popping up out of these hamsters.

We may never know for sure whether SV40 is one of the main contributors to the steady rise in cancer rates in the US during the past half century. But you have to wonder. If so, it would be a tragedy of historic proportions.

Hilleman, a hero? More like a mad scientist.


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