Work Ethic

Maurice Hilleman was born during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.  His twin sister was stillborn, and his mother died two days later.  Maurice would later say:  “I always felt like I cheated death.”  In fact, Maurice saved more lives than any other person in our history.

Maurice grew up in hard times in the state of Montana.  He had decided not to go to college until he won a scholarship.  With only enough money to eat one meal per day, he was 6’1” tall but weighed only 140 lbs.  He still was able to graduate first in his class and earn a full scholarship to the University of Chicago.  He completed a PhD in microbiology.

Maurice became the greatest inventor of vaccines in the history of the world.  Until the COVID-19 vaccine development, he held the record for the shortest time span to develop a vaccine.  The vaccine was for a new strain of influenza which had the potential to become a pandemic.  In 4 months, 40 million doses of Maurice’s vaccine were distributed throughout the U.S.

Maurice went on to develop vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, meningitis, and pneumonia.  Altogether, he developed 40 vaccines.  He never allowed his name to be placed on any of the vaccines and few people in his field of study even know of what he accomplished.

Maurice’s incredible productivity came from his work ethic.  He was in his lab seven days a week.  Seven days a week was what he grew up with working on a farm in Montana as a child.  He was a tough boss who was ill-tempered and abusive.  He refused to attend “charm school.”  He kept a display of fake shrunken heads in his office of those he fired.  But for all of his toughness, those who survived his abuse absolutely loved him.  He continued working until he died.

Of the 14 vaccines recommended for Americans as they age, Maurice developed 8 of these.  To what might this amazing accomplishment be attributed?  Certainly intelligence is critical, but so also is work ethic.  There is something to be said for the need to work as a child to help support yourself and your family.  Those with incredible work ethics often find it difficult to separate work from the rest of their life.  In fact, work becomes as enjoyable as anything else.  Not everyone can have the work ethic of Maurice Hilleman, but all of us can strive to see work as pleasure.

Just imagine how someone like Maurice Hilleman would fare in today’s organizational culture? Would he be accepted given his temperament? Would his incredible accomplishments even have ever happened? Just imagine how his work ethic would be thought of today? Just imagine how we might manage the brilliance of an individual with abusive tendencies in our current society?

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“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

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