Will This Doctor Hurt Your Baby?
Hilleman had many admirable qualities. He was a loving father and husband, and he was a brilliant scientist, and he was pathologically modest. But he was not what you would call a “nice guy.” He had the dark, stormy eyebrows of a mafiosi. He kept shrunken heads representing the people he had fired on his desk as morbid trophies. He was caustically funny. He once said that while it seemed he was a bastard on the outside, “If you looked deeper inside, you still saw a bastard.” The first time Offit met Hilleman, in the late ’80s, Offit tried to make small talk by chatting about a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who had been in the news. “He’s a good lawyer,” Offit said. “Good?” Hilleman shot back. “He’s the prince of fucking darkness.”
Offit loved him instantly: “He was such a character.” He was also the greatest vaccine-maker of the 20th century. Hilleman made Jonas Salk look like a lightweight. He invented vaccines to prevent measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A and B, HiB, chicken pox, pneumococcus, and meningococcus. He also invented the MMR combination shot. He accomplished all of this despite working at the suburban Philadelphia labs of Merck, and not inside academia, like most of his vaccine-making colleagues. Hilleman used to refer to himself, half bitterly, half mischievously, as a bastion of “dirty industry.”
“He knew how he was perceived,” Offit says. “Anything that’s a financial connection is viewed as dirty. Right? Pure science doesn’t have a financial connection. It’s just the pure academic seeking of truth. … Well, you know, strangely, only the pharmaceutical companies have the resources and expertise to make a vaccine. We can’t make it in our garage.”
Offit says “we” because he’s a Merck vaccine-maker, too. The vaccine he co-invented now sells as RotaTeq. It’s a prevention for a diarrheal disease called rotavirus that kills as many as 2,000 kids a day around the world. Last year, CHOP sold its royalty stake in RotaTeq for $182 million, and Offit received an unspecified chunk: his share of the intellectual property, “in the millions,” a life-changing windfall. Offit discussed the patent money with me on several occasions, the last time while he was laid up in bed, recuperating from a recent knee surgery that “didn’t go very well.” He said that he was drawn to vaccine-making not by any financial motive, but by “the same thing that draws you to trying to explain the science of vaccines to the public”: a fascination with vaccine technology and its potential to save lives. To Offit, getting the money felt like “winning the lottery,” because he never expected his research to amount to anything more tangible than journal articles. Publish or perish. “I know it sounds counterintuitive,” he said. “But you don’t really believe it. You don’t believe it’s going to become a vaccine. Because how many vaccines are there? Twenty? In the last century?” Offit added, “It’s not embarrassing to make a vaccine for Merck. It’s a good thing. I’m actually getting an award tomorrow, if I can get out of this fucking bed.”