D.A. HENDERSON: Lord Of The Ring

D.A. Henderson

You may have read in the paper a few weeks ago that the World Health organisation decided not to eradicate the last known stocks of the smallpox virus. The governments of the United States and Russia hold possession of those vials. There was a time, not so long ago, when smallpox killed tens of thousands of people at a clip.  The man who led the campaign that ended that was Donald Ainslie Henderson. 

D.A. Henderson (as he is known) was born in Lakewood, Ohio, half way between Cleveland and Sandusky, on the shoreline of Lake Erie. He went to Oberlin College and the University of Rochester School of Medicine. After doing his internship and residency at a Catholic hospital in Cooperstown, New York, he went on to get a Masters in Public Health degree at Johns Hopkins University. In those days (and these days as well), Johns Hopkins was the fast track to working at the major US government health organisations; NIH and the CDC.  Dr. Henderson went to work for the CDC.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson was mired in the Vietnam War and looking for ways to improve relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted the World Health organisation to make a major effort to “contain” smallpox. Johnson decided he agreed with the Soviets, and committed the United States to “eradicating” the disease, worldwide. In those days, an order from the White House caused everyone to stand up straight and salute.  The director of the CDC at the time called D.A. Henderson into his office and told him he would be moving to Geneva, Switzerland, to “eradicate” smallpox.

At first, Mr. Henderson refused.  But when he was told that he would be fired if he didn’t go, he decided he’d better go.  He wouldn’t have to stay long. These things were always announced with great fanfare, but they never went anywhere because of all the competing interests and the bureaucratic tendency to self-perpetuate while failing. He expect to stay for no longer than six months. 

He ended up staying in Geneva for 12 years.  By the time he was done, 80 per cent of the world’s population had been vaccinated against the disease.  By the time he was done, there were no known cases of smallpox on the Planet Earth.

D.A. Henderson was the Eisenhower of the group of scientists and doctors and nurses and linguists and medical technicians and soldiers and academics who eradicated smallpox.  They actually called themselves the “eradicators.”  Whenever there was an outbreak, they would fly into the “smallpox zone,” track down everyone infected with the disease, immunize everyone in a ring around those infected and effectively shut off the spread of smallpox.  They did this in Asia and India and Pakistan and Brazil and Europe. They did it over and over again; it was a global war on biological terror and it was executed with military precision.

People who worked for D.A. Henderson speak of him to this day in almost reverential tones.  He commanded loyalty by example. He had such high expectations of how someone would perform under pressure that no one who worked for him could imagine not giving everything they had to the cause.  The mere mention of his name (“do you want to talk to D.A. about this?”) would cause every meddling bureaucrat to wilt and do what he or she was being asked to do. He was ferocious in his devotion to duty, he drove his team as hard and as far as they could go, he stayed focused on the mission and he simply would not allow the effort to fail.

In 1978, the World Health organisation sent out a telegram to the “eradicators” that said, simply, “Congratulations.”  It was an astonishing accomplishment.  There were literally hundreds of people who made it possible.  But each of them pointed to D.A. Henderson as the one indispensable man; the one who made it all work. 

Dr. Henderson went on to serve his country in a variety of positions thereafter.  He served as the deputy science advisor to President George H.W. Bush, at a time when the United States first learned of a Soviet arsenal of biological weapons. The Soviet program, known as the Biopreparat, was vast; at its height it employed as many as 30,000 people.  The development of weaponised plague and smallpox was the Soviet military’s strategic goal.  President Bush and British Prime Minister Thatcher insisted that Soviet President Gorbachev dismantle the program.  It was D.A. Henderson who oversaw that effort.

In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded D.A. Henderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for distinguished service to his country and mankind. By then, D.A. Henderson was helping the Bush Administration plan defenses against possible biological attacks by terrorist organisations.  The mere fact that D.A. Henderson was on board gave confidence to those who worked on the effort. 

D.A. Henderson wasn’t a “visionary” in the traditional sense of that word. He was more like the golfer who sees the shot before he actually makes the shot.  D.A. Henderson imagined what it would take to eradicate smallpox and then he put the forces in motion that made it possible. That he imagined that he could end smallpox was grand, maybe even grandiose.  That he executed, that he finished the job, is nothing short of astonishing. D.A. Henderson was (and is) one of America’s greatest public servants. It’s a fair bet that not one American in a thousand has ever heard his name.