It is wholly fitting that Montana State University commemorates Maurice Hilleman’s contributions to science with the Hilleman’s Scholar Program. Just as he came from humble and unpromising beginnings to become a world-renowned developer of vaccines, program participants are chosen from disadvantaged backgrounds and for their unrecognized potential.

Graduating from high school in Miles City during the Great Depression, Hilleman was hoping to enter manager training for a local department store when an older brother thought he could do better. With the help of that encouragement, he won a scholarship to the then-Montana State College where he excelled at microbiology. He went on to earn a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago and then to lead a team of researchers credited with developing vaccines that save the lives of millions every year. It is said his work saved more lives in the 20th century than that of any other scientist.

Montana State University celebrated Hilleman’s 100th birthday last week. And it also marked the beginning of studies for the fourth class of Hilleman scholars. Participants in the program are chosen on the basis of recommendations and need. Those in the program are given financial and academic help but not full-ride scholarships. They are expected to maintain grades and contribute to the program by mentoring future program participants.

This program identifies students from disadvantaged backgrounds that historically do not attend college or – when they do – are the most likely to drop out. So far, Hilleman program participants’ dropout rates are lower than the overall student population and much lower than the dropout rate among similarly disadvantaged students.

It goes without saying that academic and professional potential is lost from high school graduating classes across the nation every year simply for lack of encouragement and help. The Hilleman program should serve as a model for similar efforts at other schools to recognize students with potential and extend them aid and encouragement to earn higher education degrees.

And Hilleman serves as an ideal role model for these efforts.

Speaking of her father during a recent interview, Hilleman’s daughter Kirsten said, “He always talked about being useful – as long as he could be useful.”

Were he here today, he would take comfort in knowing that, even after his passing, by merit of his example, he continues to be useful.


Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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