Vaccine researchers gather in Bozeman

msu symposium

Caption: Dr. Barbara Kuter of Merck & Co., Inc.,  shares stories about working with Maurice Hilleman at the Maurice Hilleman Vaccine Symposium Saturday, April 23, 2016 in Bozeman, Mont. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

Symposium honors Maurice Hilleman

montana living

Montana State University hosted several of the nation's leading vaccine researchers and advocates on Saturday as part of a two-day event honoring Maurice Hilleman, an MSU alumnus, Montana native, and vaccinologist who is often credited with saving more lives than any other 20th century scientist.

The Maurice Hilleman Vaccine Symposium brought together experts from Merck & Co., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health to discuss the lasting impact of Hilleman's vaccine research and development.


"He has touched the lives of more than 750 million people," said Dr. Barbara Kuter, an executive director at Merck, where Hilleman led a distinguished 30-year career and developed most of the 40 vaccines with which he is credited.


Born in Miles City in 1919, Hilleman graduated in 1941 with dual degrees in chemistry and microbiology from what was then Montana State College, then went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago. He died in 2005.


His time at MSU "set him on a phenomenal journey and a great scientific career," Kuter said.

Hilleman's accomplishments include vaccines for hepatitis B, meningitis, and pneumonia. He is credited with developing nine of the 14 most commonly administered vaccines, including the combined measles-mumps-and-rubella vaccine that has largely eradicating those diseases in the U.S.


Symposium speakers highlighted ways in which Hilleman's work laid a foundation for ongoing vaccine research and for partnerships to bring vaccines to areas of the world where they are needed most.


Kuter cited recent efforts to expand hepatitis B vaccinations in China as an example of Hilleman's far-reaching legacy. In India, a laboratory named for Hilleman is developing innovative rotavirus and cholera vaccines, she added.


"A major problem is that we have these vaccines, but they're not getting to where they're needed," said Dr. Katey Owen, who directs vaccine efforts for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation's philanthropy includes efforts to distribute vaccines in developing countries, particularly in Africa.


While vaccines have been largely responsible for reducing worldwide childhood deaths from 20 million annually in 1960 to 6.6 million in 2012, said Owen, there remains much work to be done. According to the foundation, an estimated 1.5 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases such as rotavirus, which causes severe vomiting and diarrhea and disproportionally affects infants.


Kuter, who spent many years working with Hilleman at Merck, reflected on her personal memories of the man. He had wry sense of humor and a legendary work ethic, she said, and was known for lugging two loaded briefcases to his Volkswagen Beetle each evening before returning home.


"He gave an outstanding gift to the world," Kuter said. "His picture, in my office, reminds me every day why I do what I do."


Other presenters included:


- Dr. Heinrich Feldmann of the National Institutes of Health on approaches to emerging viruses such as Ebola.


- Dr. Catharine Bosio of the National Institutes of Health on tularemia, a serious animal- and insect-transmitted disease that infects an estimated 200 people annually in the U.S., including in Montana.


-  Dr. David Pascual, professor at the University of Florida, on vaccination strategies for brucellosis.


- Dr. Agnieszka Rynda-Apple, assistant research professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University, highlighting research at MSU.


A video recording of the symposium will be available at



Please note, comments must be approved before they are published