Film to retrace famed vaccinologist’s local roots

Film director Donald Mitchell, left, and director of photography Patricio Suarez set up an establishing shot for the movie they are making about Maurice Hilleman’s life. The far building is the house Hilleman’s aunt and uncle lived in, and the close home is where Hilleman grew up. (Star photo by Steve Allison)


Maurice Hilleman, a local Miles City boy who went on to become very successful in his chosen field, used to live in a small house, now abandoned, near the dike along the Yellowstone River. Documentary film director Donald Mitchell, director of photography Patricio Suarez, and still photographer Anthony Werhun were in Miles City recently to film the location for a documentary film about Hilleman.

Although his name is not well known, Hilleman was one of the most successful vaccinologists in history. His biography, “Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases,” written Dr. Paul Offit, was published in 2007. Offit did interviews with Hilleman before Hilleman’s death in 2005. That book has inspired Gloria Lewis to produce the film on Hilleman.

Dr. Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Hilleman himself developed over 36 vaccines, more than any other scientist. Of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended in current vaccine schedules, he developed eight: those for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria. He also played a role in the discovery of the cold-producing adenoviruses, the hepatitis viruses, and the cancer-causing virus SV40.

He is credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist of the 20th Century. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS, described him as “the most successful vaccinologist in history.”

After Hilleman’s death, Ralph Nader wrote, “Yet almost no one knew about him, saw him on television, or read about him in newspapers or magazines. His anonymity, in comparison with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jose Canseco, or an assortment of grade B actors, tells something about our society’s and media’s concepts of celebrity; much less of the heroic.”

To most Miles Citians who knew Hilleman, he was just a local kid from a poor family. He was the eighth child of Anna and Gustav Hilleman. His twin sister was stillborn and his mother died two days later from complications of childbirth. He was raised by his uncle, Robert Hilleman.

The family farm raised chickens, and Hilleman credited his early experience with chickens for part of his success. Many vaccines are grown in chicken eggs.

Hilleman considered not going to college because he had a good job at the local J.C. Penney but, fortunately for the children of the world, he did. He attended Montana State University, then went on to the University of Chicago.

In 1957, he joined Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical firm, with whom he was employed for the remainder of his career. In 1963, his daughter, Jeryl Lynn, developed the mumps. He cultivated material from her which is still used as the basis of today’s mumps vaccine as part of the MMR series.

Lewis, Mitchell and those involved in the documentary want to put a human face on the complex world of vaccines and show how one man’s  dedication saved so many lives. To that end, they have been going to places Hilleman lived and studied. They have period photographs and are using those to film the locations as they currently appear.

That involves a small house on the edge of Miles City, near the WaterWorks Art Gallery.  

Mitchell, Werhun and Suarez were impressed by the natural beauty of the area, which was especially lush due to the wet spring and high water in the Yellowstone.

The film is being produced by the educational nonprofit Medical History Pictures. The plan is for the documentary to be completed by January, with the hope to show it at film festivals. The long-term goal is to have it picked up by a science-themed television program like PBS’s Nova.