Health News

DA Henderson, The Man Behind Smallpox Eradication, Dies At 87

Photo from Wikipedia

Dr. Donald Anderson, the man behind one of the world’s greatest health achievements, passed away on Friday in Towson, Maryland at the age of 87, the New York Times reports.

Dr. Henderson, fondly known as DA, died of complications from a hip fracture at a hospice. An antibiotic-resistant infection from staphylococcus, a pathogen he had researched and cautioned about, added to his health problems, said his daughter, Leigh Henderson.

DA Henderson led the World Health Organization’s battle to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s, accomplishing the feat in a short amount of time. The last known smallpox case was in Somalia in 1977.

After the disease was officially announced eliminated in 1980, Henderson remained as dean of what is now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and served as bioterrorism adviser to presidents.

The smallpox victory led to calls for stopping other diseases such as polio, measles, and others. Henderson was a staunch critic of those campaigns, and none have succeeded.

Smallpox was once one of the world’s most terrible plagues. It was called the “red plague” or the “speckled monster” because it left victims disfigured by pockmarks or ulcers on the eye. Caused by the variola virus, it killed a third of all infected people through brain inflammation and pneumonia.

The disease is believed to have originated from a rodent virus over 10,000 years ago. Signs of smallpox were found in the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt, proof of its longtime presence.

Smallpox caused the deaths of many European royals and killed off many heirs to thrones from England to China. It also killed around 80% of the American Indians when European settlers arrived, paving the way for the conquest of the New World.

Three American presidents managed to outlive the dreaded disease: George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

By the time it was eradicated, smallpox had reportedly killed 300 million people.

The key to the complete annihilation of smallpox proved to be a vaccine. Back in 1796, an English doctor, Dr. Edward Jenner, used cowpox taken from a blister on an infected hand to infect a young boy. Cowpox, a mild disease, then proved able to protect people from smallpox. This jump-started the modern vaccine, which comes from the Latin word for “cow.”

Henderson was born on Sept. 7, 1928, in Lakewood, Ohio. He graduated from Oberlin College, got a medical degree from the University of Rochester, and completed his residency at a Cooperstown, New York hospital.

He joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service in 1955, the branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dealing with disease investigations. By 1960, he had become the chief of viral disease surveillance. In this position, Henderson began planning a campaign to eradicate smallpox, which by his time had diminished in developed countries but was rampant in Brazil, Africa, and Asia.

Henderson was sent to the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva in 1966 to head the global campaign against smallpox. He had little staff and support, but the CDC gave him enough independence to run things his way.

He spent plenty of time visiting countries where smallpox was common, some of which were also in the midst of armed conflict. Henderson wrote detailed progress reports, and when the WHO asked him to desist, he threatened to quit. When the Soviets brought in weak vaccines, the determined Henderson flew to Moscow to confront them.

The smallpox campaign came up with a freeze-dried vaccine that could take the tropical heat and could be administered using a compressed air gun or by placing a drop on a forked needle and sticking it just under the skin.

Dr. William H. Foege, now an adviser to the Bill ad Melinda Gates Foundation, was Henderson’s partner in the smallpox battle. When Henderson realized that it was nearly impossible to vaccinate massive populations with a needle, Foege came up with ring vaccination.

Foege relates that it was “invented by accident” in Nigeria. The scientists were asking themselves how to go about destroying a disease that seemed hell-bent on staying. They called every local missionary via radio and asked them to send runners out to find villages that had cases. They sent 80% of their dwindling vaccine stock to those villages, giving it to family members and all recent contacts of those who had smallpox. The last 20% went to where they thought the virus would go next, such as market towns.

The campaign’s success was crucial, as a few years later, the virus behind AIDS spread across Africa. The smallpox vaccine can grow in persons with compromised immune systems to become giant, deadly lesions. Had HIV caught up with it, eradication would have been impossible.

With this success to his name, Henderson was appointed dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1977. He made some changes to the curriculum, sending more students out into the field for practical work instead of remaining inside classrooms.

He became the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in 1998. After the 9/11 attacks, anthrax started arriving in the mail, and he became the chief adviser on public health preparedness to the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Henderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the USA’s highest honor bestowed on civilians, in 2002. He is survived by his wife, Nana Irene Bragg, daughter Leigh and sons David and Douglas.

Click to comment
To Top

Hi - We Would Love To Keep In Touch

If you liked this article then please consider joing our mailing list to receive the latest news, updates and opportunities from our team.

We don't want an impostor using your email address so please look for an email from us and click the link to confirm your email address.