When his daughter got sick, he made a vaccine and saved millions of lives in the process.
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March of Dimes

On March 21, 1963, Maurice R. Hilleman's daughter woke him up. She had a sore throat.

When he examined her, he realized that she had swelling beneath her jaw.

He knew immediately that this was no ordinary sore throat. She had mumps.


Mumps is a contagious viral disease that typically starts with a fever, headache, aches and pains, fatigue, and a loss of appetite. It is then followed by swollen salivary glands. It used to be the most common cause of acquired hearing loss, and there was no treatment.

All Hilleman could do was tuck his daughter back into bed and hope she would be OK.

‌A 3D representation of a mumps virus particle. Image via Alissa Eckert/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's easy to forget today that those severe childhood diseases like mumps were once a relatively common occurrence.

As recently as half a century ago, kids would often get sick with diseases that caused devastating side effects and, sometimes, even death. In fact, some illnesses such as mumps, measles, and rubella were so prevalent that most parents could easily recognize them — usually because they had either had them themselves or had seen them before.

Measles — the same disease blamed partly for decimating Native American populations after the arrival of European explorers — was so common at the beginning of the 20th century that almost all Americans caught it sometime during their lifetime (though usually as children). In 1912-22, an average of 6,000 people died from it each year in the U.S.

Sometimes these diseases struck in the womb, too.

In the early 1960s, rubella, also known as German measles, was reaching pandemic proportions in pregnant moms. While the disease usually only produced a mild rash and fever in children and adults, if an expectant mother caught the virus — especially in the first trimester — congenital rubella syndrome caused damage to her developing baby more often than not. Not only could this cause miscarriage, but it could also lead to babies being born deaf, blind from cataracts, with heart conditions, or with developmental delays. During the epidemic, 20,000 babies were born with this syndrome.

So when Hilleman's daughter got sick, he decided to take the only action he could. He went to work.

Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman. Image via the National Library of Medicine.

Hilleman had a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Chicago, and he had been working at Merck & Co. for about six years, leading the company’s virus and vaccination research programs.

So, after she was in bed, he immediately drove to work, picked up sampling equipment from his lab, and went home to collect a swab from the back of her throat. He then brought the sample back to the lab, where he used it to help develop a vaccine against mumps.

Hilleman and his colleagues used the sample from his daughter to isolate the disease organism and figure out how to keep it alive in the lab. Then they tried to weaken it in a process called attenuation, or passing the virus over and over through a series of cells until it can no longer reproduce inside a human being (or make people sick) but can still make the body's immune system react and produce antibodies and T-lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

This result gives the body the defenses (or "memory" antibodies and T-lymphocytes) to protect itself if it ever comes into contact with the actual virus in the future.

‌Illustrations that were used in public service announcements to encourage parents to vaccinate their children against rubella in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Image via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‌

By 1967, Hilleman had developed a working vaccine for mumps — and he named it Jeryl Lynn after his daughter (who recovered fully from the disease)

But his work on vaccines didn’t stop there. In 1968, he improved upon an existing measles vaccine (one that still caused rashes and fevers). In 1969, he worked with federal regulators to develop a vaccine for rubella in order to prevent another epidemic.

Syringes containing the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine. Photo by Mark Kegans/Getty Images.

He also figured out how to combine the shots for measles, mumps, and rubella (a total of six shots) into just two — an initial shot and a booster — creating the MMR vaccine.

Hilleman developed and improved upon more than 40 vaccines — more than any other scientist in the world.

As a developer of vaccines, his work is unequaled. Today, over 91% of children receive the MMR vaccine before they turn 3, and it is considered one of the most important vaccines to get before you get pregnant (if you haven’t had it already) to prevent your baby from complications or birth abnormalities.

The MMR vaccine helped wipe out rubella from the Americas by 2015.

‌Hilleman at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research at West Point in 1963. Image via AP Photo.‌

While many of us might not know his name, Hilleman is a hero in medical science. His work on vaccines saved millions of lives in the continuing battle against contagious disease.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Welcometoterranova and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Welcometoterranova-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.