Montana State University

Film crew visits MSU for documentary on grad who saved lives of millions

June 13, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Patricio Suarez, who is director of photography for a biographical film about the late Maurice Hilleman, lines up a historical photo with the angle of his camera during shooting on the Montana State University campus Thursday, June 11, 2014. Hilleman, a 1941 graduate of what was then Montana State College, went on to become one of the most successful developers of vaccine, saving millions of lives.  MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.Maurice Hilleman, who is responsible for nine of the 14 recommended vaccines, stands for a graduation picture in 1941 in the iris garden adjacent to Herrick Hall on the campus of what was then Montana State College. Hilleman, who grew up in Miles City, passed away in 2005, is the subject of a documentary film currently in production. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Hilleman.

Patricio Suarez, who is director of photography for a biographical film about the late Maurice Hilleman, lines up a historical photo with the angle of his camera during shooting on the Montana State University campus Thursday, June 11, 2014. Hilleman, a 1941 graduate of what was then Montana State College, went on to become one of the most successful developers of vaccine, saving millions of lives. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – A film crew from Pennsylvania is visiting Montana State University this week to work on a feature-length documentary of the late Maurice Hilleman, who graduated from what was then Montana State College in 1941. Hilleman went on to become one of the world’s most successful developers of vaccines, and he is credited with saving more lives than any other 20th century scientist.

According to the film’s director, Donald Mitchell, the documentary on Hilleman has grown out of interviews Hilleman gave to fellow vaccinologist Paul Offit in the years leading up to his death from cancer in 2005. Offit’s biography of Hilleman, “Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases,” was published in 2007.

Mitchell said the goal is to present Hilleman, a relatively unknown scientist who spent most of his career with pharmaceutical company Merck, as a man driven to solve some of the most monumental problems of public health.

“In our minds, Maurice Hilleman is a hero who worked his whole life to develop vaccines that would train our bodies to remember how to fight off these diseases,” said Mitchell, who has given the project the working title “The Memory Maker.”

While hero is a word that can get casually thrown around, Mitchell said Hilleman truly earned the distinction. A glance at his accomplishments – he developed nine of the 14 vaccines routinely given to American children – underscores just how talented and prolific Hilleman was.

Among Hilleman’s scientific achievements:

  • A hepatitis B vaccine that was the first vaccine to prevent a cancer in humans (liver cancer, or hepatoma).
  • A measles-mumps-and-rubella combination vaccine that marked the first time vaccines for different viruses were successfully combined in a single shot.
  • Vaccines for meningitis and pneumonia.
  • A mumps vaccine that came after Hilleman alertly isolated the virus by swabbing the back of his daughter Jeryl Lynn's throat when she was stricken with the disease (50 years later it is still the basis for most mumps vaccines).
  • A more complete understanding of the ways different strains of the flu change slightly from year to year, which led to the practice of developing an annual seasonal flu vaccine.
  • The first successful prediction of a coming influenza pandemic and development of a vaccine that thwarted it, possibly saving close to a million people in 1957.  

The film will weave this incredible scientific legacy into a story of a man who was born to extremely humble circumstances near Miles City, who lost his mother and twin sister due to complications from childbirth, who nearly skipped college altogether so he could earn a steady pay check at the local J.C. Penney’s story, and who, despite his seven-day-a-week dedication to his research, was a devoted father to a pair of daughters.

“We want to put a human face on the story of vaccines, because we believe that Hilleman and scientists like him do this work because they are trying to make the world a better place,” Mitchell said. “The development of vaccines is not about big pharmaceutical companies, it’s a story about passionate human beings. If we are able to educate people about this area of science, then we have helped further their cause. And beyond that, we are hoping Maurice Hilleman’s passion will inspire the next generation of heroes.”

Renee Reijo Pera, MSU’s vice president of research and economic development, said that is much the way she views Hilleman’s story in the context of his alma mater.

“He’s the shining example of why we encourage undergraduates to conduct hands-on research,” Reijo Pera said. “Here is someone who graduated at the top of his class with a double major in chemistry and microbiology, then used that education to fundamentally change the world. When I look around our labs, I have to wonder, who’s the next Maurice Hilleman?”

In addition to original interviews conducted by Mitchell prior to Hilleman’s death, the biographical film will include interviews with Hilleman’s peers, as well as historical photos and footage illustrating various points of his life – the Hilleman homestead near Miles City, his studies at MSU, his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, a posting at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and his career running Merck’s vaccine program. Mitchell said some of the working science behind Hilleman’s vaccines will be illustrated with 3-D animation.

The film is being produced by the educational nonprofit Medical History Pictures. Mitchell said he plans to have the documentary finished by January, with hopes to show it at film festivals. If all goes well, it will also be picked up by a science-themed television program like PBS’s Nova.

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.