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Donald A. Henderson

Celebrating the Life and Contributions of  Dr. Donald Ainslie Henderson

Donald A. Henderson MD, MPH ’60
1928 - 2016

By Jackie Powder

Joel Breman came to represent the Pox Fighters—the public health army, 150,000 strong, who served at the frontlines of the epic war against smallpox. 

“I’m here for all those Pox warriors who fought against the disease,” said Breman, one of a host of speakers addressing an audience of more than 300 who gathered November 4 at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to pay tribute to D.A. Henderson, who led the international effort against smallpox that resulted in the only eradication of a human disease.

Breman, who directed the CDC’s smallpox program in West and Central Africa, recounted the daunting obstacles that Henderson faced when he took control of the smallpox eradication campaign in 1966: ineffective vaccines, poor surveillance and paralyzing bureaucracy. He attributes the program’s ultimate success to Henderson’s skills in recruiting talent, a willingness to embrace new technologies and an unwavering focus on the mission.

“Three words: Smallpox Target Zero,” said Breman, senior scientist emeritus at National Institutes of Health. “No matter what you did, you knew you were working to get rid of that horrific disease.”  “

Celebrating the Life and Contributions of Dr. Donald Ainslie Henderson,” brought together global public health leaders, family, friends, colleagues and admirers to share memories of D.A.—personal and professional—who died on August, 19, 2016, in Towson, Maryland.

In chronicling the defining phases of his life—as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Officer, head of the WHO Smallpox Eradication Campaign, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and biopreparedness expert—speakers recalled a supremely confident leader and an enemy of the status quo. 

In a videotaped message, Bill Gates said that Henderson’s leadership of the smallpox campaign laid the groundwork for future global immunization initiatives.

“Big advances in global health happen when science, technology and leadership combine, and D.A. Henderson understood all of those things,” Gates said. “I’m optimistic that in the coming years we’ll see the eradication of polio and accelerating progress in ending malaria.” 

Speakers at the event, cohosted by the Bloomberg School and the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, included Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, Tom Inglesby, director of the UPMC Center for Health Security, and Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, who shared her remarks via video.

Health economist Karen Davis, who was recruited to what is now the Bloomberg School during Henderson’s 1977 to 1990 deanship, became its first female department chair, leading a renamed and refocused Department of Health Policy and Management.

Davis, now director of the Bloomberg School’s Roger C. Lipitz Center for Integrated Health Care, described Henderson as “an enthusiastic mobilizer.” 

“He not only had ideas, he was not only a man of action who got things done.” Davis says. “He created a movement by inspiring all kinds of people to contribute toward improving public health.”

One of the inspired was renowned epidemiologist Chen Chien-Jen who earned a doctor of science from the School in 1983. Now the vice president of Taiwan, he recalled in a videotaped message, that D.A.’s lectures prepared him to be an effective public health practitioner.  D.A. visited Taiwan on several occasions to advise public health officials, said Chen, meetings that ultimately led to critical improvements in the development of vaccines and evaluating health systems. In gratitude, the Taiwanese government awarded Henderson the Order of the Brilliant Star.

“As a testament to his greatness as a teacher,” Chen pledged, “the many leaders he has cultivated in public health will carry on this legacy and we, the people of Taiwan, will always remember D.A.”

After stepping down as dean, Henderson held top public health and science positions in the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson came to know D.A. in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when he recruited him to run the new Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at HHS.

Operating under his get-it-done philosophy, recalled Thompson, Henderson created a national smallpox vaccine reserve. It was an undertaking that he described as “invigorating!” Thompson said.

Among the accolades from colleagues, Henderson’s daughter, Leigh Henderson, offered insights from the homefront. In Geneva, the family welcomed a steady stream of smallpox eradication workers from across the world.

At times, Leigh Henderson said, life could be quite strange. On occasion, she recalled, the refrigerator held containers of disease specimens that had to be kept cold. “My mother stipulated that they not be put next to the milk,” she said.

Despite the long separations, Henderson said that her father went out of his way to involve his family in his work. “We knew what he was doing and how important it was,” Leigh Henderson said. “We all felt very much a part of this program.”