D. A. Henderson, 1928-2016

D. A. Henderson, 1928-2016

August 31, 2016 Karie Youngdahl

Henderson in his office in 2010
Henderson in his office in 2010

Donald A. Henderson, MD, MPH, died on August 21, 2016, at age 87. Henderson was a crucial figure in the eradication of smallpox. Posted to the World Health Organization in 1966 as a CDC employee, he developed the program that would, just a little more than 10 years later, eradicate a disease that killed more than 30% of those it infected, and that was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone.

Henderson’s key insights into smallpox eradication came from his training by Alexander Langmuir as one of the early recruits of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, as well as from his public health education at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. Though he launched the WHO’s program with the goal of using mass vaccination as the main tool to eradicate smallpox, his use of rigorous surveillance and reporting techniques, learned in these public health contexts, laid the groundwork for a shift in strategy that successfully employed containment, or ring, vaccination to halt the spread of outbreaks. 

Henderson appeared on Vincent Racaniello’s This Week in Virology a few years ago to talk about the importance of continuing a research agenda into smallpox even as the eradication efforts progressed. Through research insights, his team was able to ensure that smallpox vaccines were more effective, that developing countries were able to produce and use their own vaccine, and that the bifurcated needle used in smallpox vaccination was employed in the most effective and vaccine-sparing way. He lamented in this interview that he believed the current polio eradication campaign was not conducting research in the same way. Henderson was not reluctant to call out shortcomings in programs or people; as Michael J. Klag, MD, dean of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in Henderson’s obituary in the New York Times, “He did not suffer fools gladly, and you were never sure if you were a fool or not.”

Fool or not, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Henderson at his offices at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Center for Biosecurity in 2010 as the History of Vaccines was launching. The interview is segmented and available in our Gallery here. He was a charming interview subject, and was well practiced in recounting the story of smallpox eradication. It was clear that he did this not for self-aggrandizement, but because he knew the importance of sharing the insights and experiences of the smallpox eradicators for the benefit of future disease control efforts. His book, Smallpox: The Death of a Disease, offers further perspective into the WHO program, as does the multi-author WHO 1988 publication, Smallpox and Its Eradication

We extend our sympathies to Dr. Henderson’s family, friends, and colleagues.

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