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How a New Vaccine Was Developed in Record Time in the 1960s

June 22, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

It took just four years to get the mumps vaccine ready for market—but its development leaned heavily on groundwork that had been established during World War II.

The invention of the modern mumps vaccine is the stuff of medical textbook legend. In 1963, a star researcher at the pharmaceutical company Merck took a swab of his own daughter’s throat to begin cultivating a weakened form of the mumps virus. And just four years later, in record time, Merck licensed Mumpsvax as the world’s first effective vaccine against this common and contagious childhood illness.

But a closer look at the history of vaccines shows that this popular origin story overlooks the decades-long search for a mumps cure that began in earnest during World War II. And it overshadows the fact that during the 1940s and 1950s, researchers chasing vaccines for polio and measles made incremental breakthroughs in lab techniques that ultimately made swift development of the 1960s Mumpsvax possible.

The ‘Jeryl Lynn’ Strain

Dr. Maurice Hilleman, circa 1958.

At 1 a.m. on March 21, 1963, a five-year-old girl in Philadelphia woke her father, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, complaining of a sore throat. Hilleman, a prickly genius working at Merck, immediately diagnosed her with a case of the mumps, a generally harmless childhood illness for which there was no treatment, and sent her back to bed.

But Hilleman couldn’t go back to sleep—he had an idea. Another research lab had just licensed a measles vaccine based on a new technique for growing weakened forms of a live virus in chicken embryos. Maybe he could do the same thing for mumps. Hilleman rushed to Merck for sampling supplies, came back and swabbed his daughter’s throat, then drove the viral culture back to the lab.

The mumps vaccine Hilleman developed in 1967 from that late-night inspiration is still in use as part of the combination measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine given to infants the world over. In the United States alone, mumps used to infect 186,000 kids a year in the 1960s. Today, thanks to the vaccine, there are fewer than 1,000 mumps infections annually.

Perhaps the most charming part of Hilleman’s mumps vaccine story is that he named the strain of mumps virus used to make the vaccine after his young daughter, Jeryl Lynn. The same Jeryl Lynn strain is still used in mumps vaccine production today.

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