By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

One hundred years after his birth, the legacy of Montana State graduate Maurice Hilleman lives on.

Over the course of his career, Hilleman — who graduated in 1941 from what was then Montana State College with dual degrees in chemistry and microbiology — developed a wide array of vaccines, saving the lives of millions. His name is often spoken along with Jonas Salk and Louis Pasteur as pioneers who fundamentally changed human health. 

Hilleman was born on a farm near Miles City in 1919. His early days were marked by tragedy: His twin sister died during childbirth and his mother died two days later. He was raised by an aunt and uncle on the family farm, and as a child he was expected to work hard and contribute to the family.

Hilleman had been planning to accept a coveted career-track job at a J.C. Penney store in Miles City when his older brother told him that Montana State College — now MSU — offered scholarships. Hilleman applied, won a scholarship and enrolled.

“When no one is left behind, incredible things happen.”

MSU President Waded Cruzado

After graduating from Montana State at the top of his class, he went on to do graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he eventually helped develop a treatment for chlamydia by discovering it was a bacteria and not a virus. Over the next 43 years, Hilleman became the world’s leading vaccinologist, developing more than 40 important vaccines for human and animal health. Of the 14 vaccines commonly given to children, Hilleman developed eight. Among them are vaccines for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia. Hilleman – who spent the majority of his career at Merck and Co. – also gave the world a more complete understanding of the ways different strains of the flu virus change from year to year. The need for an annual seasonal flu vaccine is due to these ongoing and subtle changes.

When Hilleman died in 2005, scientists quoted in his New York Times obituary credited him with probably saving more lives than any other person in the 20th century.

Now, on what would have been Hilleman’s 100th birthday, his legacy lives on at his alma mater through the Hilleman Scholars Program. Exclusively for Montana residents, the program was inaugurated in 2016. Each year approximately 50 Hilleman scholars are selected based on personal essays, nomination letters, grades and financial need. But paramount in the selection process is evidence of significant academic, leadership and career potential.

In fact, MSU President Waded Cruzado said that the program looks for students whose defining characteristics are grit and potential but who, for any number of reasons, may, in some cases, have not performed to their full potential in high school or on standardized SAT and ACT tests.

“If all we do as public, land-grant universities is educate the best-prepared high school students, then we are little more than a conveyor belt moving the benefits of the best-off Americans into the next generation,” Cruzado said. “But if we take the students who understand and embrace the challenges from their lives, and guide them through a university curriculum —  without ever abandoning our commitment to quality and rigor —  then we act not as a conveyor but as an engine unleashing the enormous raw energy in individuals and in our nation.”

Hilleman scholars are eligible for up to $8,000 in tuition assistance for their first year and $4,000 per year for the following three years. Scholars who maintain satisfactory academic progress and demonstrate exemplary commitment to the program in the first three years may also be eligible for an additional $3,000 at the end of their junior year to apply toward a study abroad experience.

The program also offers more than financial support. It begins with a month-long Summer Success Academy on the MSU campus that boosts college-level math, writing and critical thinking skills and equips students with effective learning strategies for the coming academic year. There is also a heavy focus on leadership training and career planning.

While this scholarship provides financial assistance, it is not a full ride or a free ride. To be accepted as a Hilleman Scholar, students must commit to work at their education beyond ordinary expectations and help future scholars that come after them. All scholars are expected to graduate in four years.

The university hopes to expand the Hilleman Scholars Program in the coming years so that it can serve even more students, according to Carina Beck, director of the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success, which administers the program. Those who are most closely connected to it are certain the investment will pay dividends.

Cruzado puts it this way: “When no one is left behind, incredible things happen.”