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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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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