The Great VaccinatorRadiolab
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- 3 Dec 2020
Until now, the fastest vaccine ever made - for mumps - took four years. And while our current effort to develop a covid-19 vaccine involves thousands of people working around the clock, the mumps vaccine was developed almost exclusively by one person: Maurice Hilleman. Hilleman cranked out more than 40 other vaccines over the course of his career, including 8 of the 14 routinely given to children. He arguably save more lives than any other single person. And through his work, Hilleman embodied the instincts, drive, and guts it takes to marshall the human body’s defenses against a disease. But through him we also see the struggle and the costs of these monumental scientific efforts.
This episode was reported by Matt Kielty and Heather Radke, and produced by Matt Kielty.
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Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. And today, hello, Matthew Kielty. Hey, hey, hey. A story from our producer, Matthew Kielty is also here.
Hey, Radtke, how's it going? Good. How are you doing? And reporter Heather Radtke, where do you guys want to start?
So from The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Rewind back to the early days of the pandemic today, mid-April, as President Trump I was I was listening to The Daily Show, was one of these episodes about the pandemic.
And on the show, they had science reporter Donald McNeil Jr., Don McNeil Jr..
I remember in those early days of the pandemic when Don McNeil came on to the Daley, you sort of knew you were going to get some bad news and that he was going to just sort of tell you how serious this thing was. Don't take on like doomsday, Don, or something.
I mean, I've never heard that, but I wouldn't I'm not surprised because back in February, the portraits of the future that you have painted for us have been strikingly accurate.
He was telling us that the schools were going to close, that we were all going to be stuck in our houses for weeks or months. Those happened that there wasn't going to be enough personal protective equipment. But everything you said would happen has more or less happened.
Well, look, I'm not some dark angel who's simply looking into the future, but he kind of is.
I don't know. But anyway, so so in this show, I'm talking to experts, which was in April, they're talking about like they're kind of playing out the future of the pandemic and what our world might look like.
You know, we're not going to be able to let people sit next to each other in football stadiums about what sports might look like that half the kids go to school this week, how schools might work next week. The other half of the kids get to come to school eating out restaurant that had 100 customers before now has about 10 customers in eerily prescient.
Yeah, and but then Barbaras like at some point, do we just get to go back to normal?
And then McNeil says, look, this pandemic will end when we have a vaccine that we can all take the vaccines. The thing that's going to end this.
But the record we've ever had for producing a vaccine is four years.
The fastest vaccine we've ever made was the mumps vaccine.
Yeah, the fastest human vaccine ever made was mumps, four years from start to finish. Now, if you are a person who consumes information, you're probably well aware of the fact that we are going to break that record, like we're probably going to obliterate that record. We are going to have a vaccine much faster than four years. And I mean, that's because covid is a completely world altering, destructive pandemic that we have devoted millions upon millions of dollars to thousands and thousands of people who are working day and night to come up with a vaccine.
But it maybe you're wondering at this point where I'm going with this. But when Heather heard that episode, The Daily Show and I got to talking and we we started to look into this story about mumps, about what will soon be the second fastest vaccine we've ever made. And what we found is standing in the center of it is weirdly just this one guy. Scientists named Maurice Hilleman, a guy who somehow embodied all of what ridding the world of a disease requires of us.
But before we get to Marie's, what are the months exactly? Can you hear me now? I can hear you. So we talked to this guy, Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
How are things going in your world right now? They're pretty busy. I've actually never been busier in my life and I'm older.
You know, Paul's on an FDA advisory committee for the covid Vaccines.
We had a meeting last Thursday, which was a nine hour meeting. It was shown on C-SPAN.
Oh, having a long meeting.
But anyway, so we asked Paul, what is mumps and how is it contagious?
But in the same way that sars-cov-2 is contagious, which is that spreads by small respiratory droplets that emanate from the mouth and nose.
So like coughing, sneezing, talking, kissing, and mostly the virus infected children.
And the main symptom of mumps is that your face kind of swells up like your cheek swell up and around your jaw.
So you have this chipmunk like appearance.
I want to be so kids who get mumps just like like these, like, you know, kulu chipmunks, which meant the mumps was great for things like Plot Line and The Brady Bunch. The doctor thinks I may have the mumps and not in good times.
I wouldn't mind taking it to Mom's some old German cartoon, but there's a coaster song called Poison Ivy Doesn't Make You Laugh and not to make you not ask your parents about it. I found this old vaudeville song about a kid getting mumps that I. Test it out on my flute. Did not see the flute coming like is like the cutest disease you can have, is is it fatal? Not really, no.
I mean, it causes it can infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord, which could cause deafness, but it doesn't really kill, you know, so it's not really you know, I got to say, one thing I wish I was in here was the real problem with mumps, which is that men lose their virility.
I feel like you're avoiding I'm not avoiding it.
I'm just saying the big problem with mumps is that men's testicles become enormous and they can't walk and then they sometimes can't have children.
And it scared everybody in the army. And that's why mumps was a big deal. It's. Yeah, add that in.
It's in. It's in. Wait, are you saying seriously that the big push for why this particular vaccine happened so fast is because it was very male centered and it worried a lot of Army guys? No, no.
Because this is actually where we get back to our one guy, Maurice Hillman.
Bruce Hilleman, I think, is the father of modern vaccines.
I mean, he's one of these guys that he is the vaccine master and all of his bios and obituaries, you'll read something like he might be the greatest biologist of the 20th century.
Right. He's estimated his work is estimated to save about eight million lives a year.
Well, then you'll read something that's like he was the greatest scientist of the 20th century.
He lived longer because of him. We live 30 years longer than we did one hundred years ago, largely because of the efforts of resettlement. Oh, my God.
And then you'll come across something that says he may be the greatest scientist. That's ever lived. I wish he was alive today.
Yeah, so Maurice Hilleman died in 2005 of cancer at the age of 85. But just months before his death, Paul actually interviewed him.
I just wanted to get his stories down. They knew each other pretty well and he was nice enough to let me interview him for 60 or 70 hours or so in the last six months of his life.
And also getting a film crew interviewed Morris before his death and they were generous enough to give us some of that tape.
Well, I'm very saleman and I had a long career in science, about 60 years doing basic research and the development of a large number of new vaccines said, give me a little bit of your personal history.
Well, you might ask, well, how did you ever become a Montanan?
So go back hundreds, Hillman's great uncle and scout in the army ends up settling in Montana in this little town called Miles Town, now called Mile City, engaged in illicit businesses. I think it was largely prostitution.
Eventually more, the family came up, set alongside them.
It's a rich farmland. They're big, wide open spaces. His mom and dad worked a farm. They had seven kids. And then Maurice was born around the time of the Great Flu pandemic, 1919. So he's born right in the middle of second wave flu. And his mother got really sick right after he was born. And he had a twin sister. And both the twin sister and the mom actually died. And he was the only survivor of the birth.
And Marissa's father actually gave Moreese away to his to his aunt, uncle, who lived right next door. So he had this very kind of strange childhood where he would he would work the farm with his his siblings and his biological father.
They they would go to the same church, all of them together. But then at the end of the day, he would go to be with his aunt and uncle by himself.
And I think he I think he always wanted to be seen. He would mention that that he wanted to be seen by his father.
All that said, it was a sort of driving force in his life.
So it's the 20s in Montana. You really became a workaholic to survive. By age four, he's going to town to sell strawberries at the market. Back on the farm, we had a blacksmith shop at a machine shop. There were all sorts of animals. And as he got older, one of my jobs was to take care of the chickens.
He fed them and he corralled them and collected their eggs. I got to know chickens. And then there are these stories about how, like before he's ten.
He was almost hit by a freight train. Literally a train was coming in the other direction. He almost suffocates from diphtheria. He got somehow, like follows a hobo into a waterfall, but he can't swim and he almost drowned. This kid is cursed. Life in Montana was tough.
And so he saw himself as a remarkable survivor and he becomes a pretty tough person because of it. But he also becomes very interested in science. So Helman's biological dad, he was like super Lutheran, really, really devout. He was an avid prayer. He believed in faith, healing that God could cure disease.
And Paul, that maybe a sort of a reaction to it or more of rejection of it when on board HMS Beagle, those naturalist Hilleman fell in love with Darwin.
I was much struck with certain facts.
He literally like Darwin is what drew him to the dark side. Yeah, I mean, he told me the story with glee about how he would sit in church and seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of Species.
Read Darwin's on the Origin of Species. That mystery of mysteries, unlike his dad's religion, that was all about mystery and faith. This was logical and ordered and reasoned and based on things you could say.
And he kind of becomes enraptured with this other kind of. Bible. And he goes from reading Darwin to earlier from Birmingham Pasteur. He's a great microbiologist. Who had done groundbreaking research in this still new emerging field virology? The science of viruses, the whole business of viruses as the bridge between the living and the dead, I had really gotten interested in this.
Now when he finished high school, he actually didn't plan on going to college. It would take his brother coming back from seminary school to push him to keep going with his education. So I did go to Montana State.
He studies microbiology. We're pretty hard. There are stories about how you would spend his weekends in the lab, but how he had four experiments going at once.
And in 1941, he graduate goes to the University of Chicago, the intellectual center, which time starts his PhD work and chlamydia. Four years people have been looking for a vaccine to chlamydia, which everybody thought was a virus.
And in a year, Hillman discovers it's actually not a virus at all.
It was a bacteria that could be treated with antibiotics. That's what he did as his PhD thesis when he was 25 years old. Wow. A huge accomplishment. Then 1944, he graduates from a pretty damn good school and was wooed by academia to become a professor, which was what he was expected to become.
That's what you did. You went off and followed the path of those who came before you in the pursuit of knowledge in these vaunted public institutions where you would burrow in, do your research for the good of the public. And Hilleman was like, no, I wanted to go out and how the big world operate in the big world of the practical.
He wanted to make things much as he had made them on the farm. He wanted to produce things.
So he goes to work for the small pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. Then he gets drunk.
Well, but first, I mean, don't sleep on the the Japanese encephalitis. So he creates this vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, which is this horrible disease that causes brain swelling and had been killing people in Asia for a really long time.
And then the the army asks him to develop a vaccine so that soldiers don't die of it when they're when they're there.
They're not affected by it. And he does.
And that's the first vaccine that he makes.
Does he do the Hong Kong thing when he's in the army? I think he does do late 40s institutions, modern strains of influenza.
Uh, yes. In nineteen forty eight, he goes to Walter Reed. Yes.
When I went to Walter Reed, it was my assignment was very simply learn everything you can about influenza.
You know, 1918 isn't that far away from the mid forties. The pandemic is really in everyone's memory.
So my job was to prevent the next pandemic, figure out how to prevent another one.
So what I did basically goes through looking through all these samples of flu that they have at Walter Reed and he discovers that the flu virus changes every year and he figures out how it does that and why and then helps to create a system for making a new vaccine every year.
So he is the reason that we have to get a new flu shot every year. Yeah. Wow.
He's also the first to discover how viruses shift when they jump back and forth between humans and birds or bats. Wow. Which allows him in 1957 to become the first human being ever to avert a pandemic because he's able to see it coming. It was coming from Hong Kong. He's able to tweak the flu vaccine. People are inoculated. He's able to save at least like a million lives in America. Wow. He's given the presidential medal for science.
This guy's just like he's on quite a run. Yeah. After his miserable child years. I know.
I mean, you really do have to go. Go ahead. OK, so I didn't ask a question, but I think it's coming, so maybe I'll maybe don't answer it. If you're about to tell me, how does I'm searching for some way to understand why he was so gifted at this particular corner of science. But maybe there is something in a story you're about to tell me that'll kind of get it that dead.
It's the mom story, the whole reason we're here. All right. So tonight, can you guys hold on one second?
I might have to run and get the door. I'll be right back.
Sure. I'm going to have some water. It's a good spot for a break. Hi, this is Matt from San Jose, California. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at W w w dot Sloan dot org science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science.
Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
I can never find the app, type it in, type it into it, and you guys have a real a lot of people who work with you. It's sort of a fun little family here at the end. All hands on deck are all hands on deck like we're putting on a play.
Chad, radio back to Heather Radtke and Matt Kielty and their story about Maurice Hilleman, a.k.a. the father of modern vaccines, a.k.a. the vaccine Mester, one of the things he also is a profane man.
Yes. Cause so many things that could happen. God damn, this guy is a piece of shit. Ice cream truck stop.
By the way, these are recordings often made with hilleman in order to write a book on him.
But it was hard in writing the book because often I would have like the F word in the same sentence as polymerase chain reaction, which is probably the only time that's ever happened.
So anyway, I in 1957, Hillerman joined the pharmaceutical company Merck to run their vaccine division.
And when he got there pretty quickly, the company put him through management training school or what he called charm school.
He couldn't cost so much. That's bullshit.
At a certain point, he was lectured about creating a more fulfilling work environment for his employees.
And that was your job? Holy shit. Well, he was a tough guy. The company should be doing is kicking ass and he suffered fools poorly.
I didn't think I was in a large part.
This is because when Hillman showed up to Merck, he had this like grand vision.
And my vision was that I wanted to conquer pediatric diseases of children. His goal was to eliminate any viral or bacterial infection that infected children measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, which was a ridiculous goal. But he came pretty darn close to meeting it. OK, so let's finally actually go to let's let's get you ready to go to my mum's. All right. Yes. Let's go back to the very beginning. Oh, absolutely. This, by the way, is Morris Hillman's daughter, Jerilyn Hilleman.
How old were you when you came down with mumps? I believe I was five. Philadelphia is right outside of Philadelphia in a suburb outside of Philadelphia.
OK, so it was March twenty third, 1963.
It was probably in the middle of the night, very late at night. I'd gone to bed. I woke up. I wasn't feeling well.
So she gets out of bed, goes across the hall, she comes in to you at 1:00 in the morning, wakes up her dad and she says, I said the first thing he did is he got out this book, very thick book, maybe three or four inches thick hardback, a kind of diagnostic book comes through.
It looks at his daughter, shit, you mom's.
But see, I can't have him cursing in front of a five year old daughter, so I didn't do that. I think I said, oh, goodness. Or something like that. And then what he did was something no father does. He later backed down in bed and there was his wife had recently died. And so he had a housekeeper who also stayed in the home and in the evening.
So at 1:00 in the morning, he got dressed, got in his car and he drove down to the lab, got a swab, came back gently, woke up. His daughter, swabbed the inside of her mouth and he pulled out a little bit of her mum's virus.
And he said in this in his interview that he did with is the time to get a virus.
Like at this point, he didn't have a good strain of the mumps virus at Merck.
And so you sort of just like if an opportunity presents itself, take every opportunity, get yourself a virus.
OK, so now he has a sample of the virus and he's going to try to use drylands virus to make the vaccine. OK, let's see.
So. This is like this is crazy. It is like making a vaccine. This is the part where I'm like, OK, demystify it. So what does he do? So the first thing he does is he puts Churchlands mumps virus into this lab flask with a bunch of chicken embryo cells. Why? Fair question.
So basically, he's going to use these chick cells to transform the virus.
So what he does is he has the virus in with these chick cells in a lab flask and he basically starts watching the virus grow in these cells. And as it's growing, what it's doing is it's killing cells.
That's what the virus does when it grows.
And he's looking for clumps of dead cells. And if he sees a flask that has a lot of dead cells, he's like, oh, that one, he takes the virus out of there, plucks it out, puts it into another flask with chick cells.
And he's watching to see if it kills even more cells this time. And if it does, he takes it out, puts it into a flask again. And he's just he's basically trying to get this thing to be better and better at killing chicken cells. And the idea is like, oh, yeah, sorry.
You're about to answer my question. I think keep going.
Well, the idea is that by passing it through animal cells, these chicken cells again and again, what you're doing is you're essentially you're weakening the effect of the virus on a human.
It's still a virus and it's still a virus that you can actually then take and put inside of a human. The thing is, it's just not going to cause the same sort of disease that it would if it were like really very virulent and very strong.
It's essentially weakened. This is called attenuation. You're kind of like turning down the the knob or something.
The volume on this virus, it's like turn down the knob on the human virus and up the knob on the chicken virus.
And so what is he looking for exactly? Is he looking for a virus that's super good at getting into chicken cells and therefore. Terrible at human cells or is he looking for something that's sort of the art? This is a judgment call.
Hilleman described it as a judgment call. It's guts, judgment.
It's just absolute drowner. I mean, there's no formula for this. This is not written down anywhere. You just try and offer. Told us he really just had a sixth sense for how one did that.
You know, different people would make different choices about that. And he's good at making the right set of choices. So you don't want it. So, Cecchini, that humans don't like, you know, a human body doesn't recognize it at all, but you don't want it human to the point where anybody is going to get sick.
And that's the real fear in making a vaccine, is that people will get the disease, you know. So I see.
Oh, so you just put your finger on it. So he's looking for a a he's trying to mutate or attenuate it so that it's right at that perfect fault line between being chicken enough that it doesn't hurt the human, but still being human enough that the human immune system will recognize it and see it as a threat.
And Paul explained to us that doing this process because you end up with an actual live virus, that is the vaccine that you put into people, you you this process leads to like the most robust immune response that a vaccine can can create.
That's the gold standard of vaccines. And that same strategy is being used to make a covid-19 vaccine as well. Oh, really? We still do that. We still do that. Yeah. Sometimes they ask you if you're allergic to eggs when you get a vaccine.
Oh, before we leave this part of the process quick, like, how long did it take me to do this, pass it through the chicken cell thing.
It probably took about two years to do that. Two years. That's right.
Which sounds slow, but it's fast because with covid we have hundreds of scientists all over the world, all of the resources they could possibly imagine. And it's taken us at least a year. This is one guy with a couple of lab assistants and a bunch of chicken eggs. So two years is actually pretty fast, right?
So, yeah. All right. So then so that's that's just the beginning. So once he has a decent vaccine, he has to do tests on people.
And this part of the process, it's a different thing than growing things in a lab.
There's like a whole other landscape of questions and judgment calls and risks, like the vaccine, if it's not right, can actually just give you mumps.
And also, when we test vaccines, we're not only testing to make sure that they work and that they won't give you the disease. We're also testing to make sure that there aren't other unknown side effects. Yes.
Could you just walk us through what exactly Hillman's doing in this trial process?
So he starts with adults, then you work your way down to children.
And what he's doing is he's just he's injecting his vaccine and just being like, do you die or are you OK?
Yeah, well, yeah, not like that, but yeah, it's just. Or is it safe and is inducing an immune response which is likely to be protective.
OK, so you give them the vaccine, you check back in, you draw their blood and then you look for antibodies.
And the thing is back then you could do this with a lot of speed because these are kind of the Wild West days of vaccine making and research, for example, to do a trial overexplained, to do a vaccine trial.
Now you have to sign a 15 page, single spaced consent form.
Then it was a three by five card. It said, I allow my child to participate in a blank vaccine trial. And you just filled in mumps, measles, German measles, and then you signed it. Wow. That was the consent form.
So what Hilleman and his team did is they went to the suburbs, set up studies and Havertown, which is West Philadelphia, they basically had these community meetings through the churches.
Some of the schools would be clergy, people, teachers, parents who were mostly white, middle class and hilleman. And his team would meet with these people and in particular with the parents. They would explain to them what the vaccine is, what they hope the vaccine can do, and then hand them a three by five no card and ask them to volunteer their kids.
And a lot of them did volunteer thousands of children, about 5000 or so children.
Well, I think it's wonderful that they have. Yes.
And I'm glad that I actually found this old documentary from when these tests were being done. And it's just a room full of these kids getting a vaccine shot, crying, and then these mothers.
I'm here because I feel that this will help children. This will be a wonderful thing explaining why they decided to participate. Oh, I hate to see any child suffering. I'm a mother of six and I'm for anything that can help any child in the world. I'm a mother through and through. We owe such a huge debt. People at West Philadelphia area parents had to keep their records at home for what the children take, their temperatures, come in and go through all of this annoying business, glad they had to be inoculated to participate in what was regarded as a humanitarian quest.
Boy, I'll never forget that. That was Hilleman was conducting these tests on children who had been volunteered by their parents. He was actually also testing the mumps vaccine on another group of children, children who were living in state homes and had intellectual disabilities. They were essentially volunteered by the state. So until the law changed in the early 70s, this is how a lot of drugs and particularly vaccines were tested. This is actually something that comes up in its interviews with Hilleman.
It was a big ethical issue. I worried about that. Like, they don't think we have a hell of a responsibility. And what are the ethical standards that we're where we're using and following? And Hilleman says at the time, the two sort of guiding ideas were to do no harm and do good and do good.
In those days in the 1960s, the thinking at the time when you were in these chronic care long term facilities, the level of hygiene and sanitation in those areas was terrible. It was crowded. Disease was rampant. Well, they all the disease is institutionalized kids.
So the justification at the time was that because these kids were the most likely to get these diseases, they were also the most likely to benefit from the vaccine. So I'm telling you, these were judgment calls scientifically and ethically. There is no question about it. What Hillman was doing testing his vaccine on children with intellectual disabilities in state homes was part of a bigger thing that was happening all over the place across the country. And a lot of kids got sick and some even died.
There was a situation in Staten Island where a group of kids were given live hepatitis. Another situation in Massachusetts where were a group of children had to stay home, were given radiation, was just exposed to tons of radiation. And although what Hillman was doing wasn't that he was part of a system where children who were under the care of the state were used for scientific experimentation. Right. What is it before we leave this point, did anyone protest to or about Hilman in the moment or was it just so commonplace that people didn't think anything of it?
No, they didn't. And it was very commonplace. And nobody got sick because the vaccine worked. So in nineteen sixty seven, four years after he'd swabbed Roland's throat, Hillman and made his mumps vaccine, it was the fastest anyone had ever made a vaccine from start to finish.
And we'll say quick that hilleman seem pretty tickled that this was her last night.
Got, gee, that's your virus. You got to name it after his daughter. Can you imagine that?
It's called the Jerilyn Strain. It still is.
And he thought that was a nice thing. But it wasn't something. It was just one of those facts of life.
After he was done with mumps, he was just off to the next thing.
And, you know, he he carried around a list of times. This list he kept in his pocket list of diseases that still had yet to be conquered. And I think it was a reminder that for him, his work would never be done.
And what he would say this, he would say it was like putting up a fence and then you take a break and, you know, everybody gathers around and they drink from, you know, from this bucket of water and they pass the ladle around and then you're done and then you go back to doing it again. It was never, ever satisfied.
Well, after Mum's was measles and with measles, there's actually already a vaccine in existence. And I mean, that vaccine worked, but it wasn't quite attenuated enough, like it wasn't weak enough.
So you would have to get another shot at the same time in your other arm. So you didn't get sick then?
Just took that virus and very quickly attenuated it so that it was perfect. That virus bounces off you. It's a remarkable vaccine. And so we eliminated measles, the most contagious of the vaccine preventable diseases, because it was so incredibly effective.
Wow. Damn. Yeah.
So here's so this is how you got a list. Yeah, it's a this is vaccines that hilleman developed. OK, so chicken pox. Chicken pox. Yeah. Chicken pox was a late comer. Wow.
So chicken pox, adenovirus, measles, mumps, rubella, which you combined into the MMR vaccine that we all get Japanese encephalitis, meningococcus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae, type B and then others down.
By the end of his career, he developed over 40 vaccines, 40, including eight of the 14 that we all get as children.
Well, looking back on one's lifetime, you say, gee, what have I done? Have I done enough for the world to justify having been here? You know, that's a big worry to people from Montana, at least. And I would say I'm kind of pleased about all this. I'm not smug about it, but I'm pleased because there's a great joy in being useful. And that's the satisfaction that you get out of it. And just to give you like context to Hillman's work, Paul actually helped to create one of the 14 vaccines we get as kids.
Oh, really? Yeah. And it took him. Twenty six years ago, so he says when he first learned about hilleman and what all he had accomplished was like trying to imagine another universe. But he was humble, as rough as he was, is as crude as he could be. Now, as profane as you could be, he was a humble man. He never promoted himself. So he just always flew below the radar, remarkably enough, given his accomplishments.
I honestly think he was the single most accomplished scientists in history. And when he died, I was at a I gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. His son in law called me to say that he had passed away. And then after I heard that news, I walked in among a group of thirty five to 50 pediatricians and say, you know, here's this man or woman who just passed away. No one heard of him. No one zero.
Huh? And these are pediatricians who give his vaccine.
Did that did that surprise you in that moment? Yeah. Yes, it did. Did it sadden you? Yes.
Do you think his humility, which is you're saying is part of the reason we don't remember him, is also part of what made him good at his job?
In some ways, I think he was never stopping to take a bow. But to be honest, I think it's all wrong. I mean, I think no one should be taking. I mean, I really every time a CEO opens his mouth, I really shudder to hear what they say because they're always beating their chest about how quickly they're doing this and how well it's going.
Paul was talking about some of the CEOs who are at the companies who are at the forefront of manufacturing the covid vaccine.
And when he says he shudders, it's not just because of all the ways the development of the vaccine could go wrong, but also because it seems like they're not really recognizing the cost even when it goes right, because there has never been a medical breakthrough in history that has not been associated with a price.
When Thomas Francis did the polio field trial in mid 1950s, Jonas Salk had made his vaccine, but he didn't know whether it worked or not. So they just chose to do a big field trial. Four hundred and twenty thousand children were given his vaccine over a year period funded by the March of Dimes. Two hundred thousand were given placebo first and second graders throughout the country. And then after it was over, Thomas Francis stood up on the podium at Rackham Hall at the University of Michigan and said, Safe, potent and effective.
That's what he said. Those three words were the headline of every major newspaper in this country. Church bells rang, synagogues and churches held special prayer meetings at department stores. Stop trial stopped, you know, so that judges could hear that announcement. It was announced over the Voice of America. Well, the question is, how do we know that it worked? We knew that it worked because 16 children in that study died from polio, all in the placebo group.
Thirty six children were permanently paralyzed. Thirty four in the placebo group. But for the flip of a coin, those children could have been alive and well today. Those were first and second graders in the 1950s. I was the first and second grader in the 1950s. I mean, those those people suffered or died because they just happened to be in the control group. That's what knowledge takes. And that was that statistic never really rang. I mean, we were so busy celebrating that that I think we didn't really stop and take a look at just how one comes to acquire knowledge.
Know, I just came across this quote from Jonas Salk, who sent a letter to a man named Connor, who I don't know who O'Connor is or was he had he had the March of Dimes program, OK?
And Salk wrote, I would feel that every child who is injected with placebo becomes paralyzed will do so at my hands.
That's right. That's what I was alluding to. Huh. And that those who argued, those demanding a placebo controlled trial, he argued, took the position in order to reach a statistical endpoint because, quote, values in which the worship of science involves the sacrifice of humanitarian principles on the altar of rigid methodology.
Yeah, I think John was always heartbroken when that trial was done because he knew that there would be children who would intentionally not be given the vaccine. I mean, the one thing is to say, as you roll out of vaccine like the Ebola vaccine, when it rolled out into West Africa, not everybody got it at once. And so some people got it, some people didn't. And some people some people didn't get it obviously weren't saved. But it's different than when you actually purposefully don't give a vaccine for a period of year.
You're making the choice. You're asking a child to participate in something. And you know that half of them, half of those children aren't going to be getting the vaccine. I just feels different. You're actually doing a trial where, you know, there are children who may die and be paralyzed and that other half because they haven't gotten the vaccine. And the truth be told, that's the only way you're going to know that.
And Paul told us that this is actually what's happening with covid now a while back. I don't know if you remember this, but there was a guy in Brazil who was part of a covered trial who died.
You know, we all held our breath to see whether the person was in the placebo group or the vaccine group. And everybody breathed a sigh of relief when the person was in the placebo group, because now you know that the vaccine didn't kill them.
But now we're, you know, is that covid killed him.
And had he been in the other group, he probably wouldn't have died. I'm just saying you're constructing an experiment where by definition, you're not going to learn unless people suffer or hospitalized or die.
That's the experiment you're conducting. They're seemingly always is some sort of cost and someone gets sacrificed to progress and there's a question of who who bears the burden of that sacrifice. And I think oftentimes it's it's marginalized communities. But, uh, but yet inevitably there like blood is sort of shed is what it feels like always. Reporters Heather Radtke and Matt Kielty. I go to school now for almost a week. I got a big lump on my left hand cheek teacher said not to come back again to the doctor.
Ma said, What is my child?
His face is full of lumps and Paul looked at me and said to be James, our angel has the mumps, I've got the mumps, I've got the mumps to Tilpa.
OK, special thanks to, well, a huge special thanks to Donald Mitchell, the filmmaker who passed us a lot of this audio of Maurice Hellman. His movie is called Hilleman A Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children. You can watch the film online or parts of it at the Vaccine Makers Project. Also to Alain Ickiness and to an avid cook and Andrew Backer who performed this lovely rendition of You've Got the Mumps of the Mumps Sheet Music Heather Found.
Don't get it from breakfast till it's nearly 10 for my Nicola rub up against you. And then you have the mumps.
That's it for me, Chad. OK, Jad Abumrad, thank you all for listening. Hi, this is Stephan phoning from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Sean Reeler, Lou Miller and lots of Nassauer. Our co-hosts Dylan QIf is our director of Sound Design, and Susie Lichtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Kuzak, David Gabal, Matt Kielty, Topin Lowe, Andy McEwan, Sarah Khari, Ariane Whack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Cima, Oleksiy, Sarasohn, Buck and Johnny Moments.
Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.