U.S. scientist who led fight to eradicate smallpox dies at 87

The American epidemiologist whose unwavering leadership resulted in the eradication nearly 40 years ago of smallpox, one of the world’s most feared contagious diseases, has died.

Dr. Donald “D.A.” Henderson was 87 when he died August 19 at a hospice care facility in Towson, Maryland, from complications following a hip fracture, Johns Hopkins University said in a statement. Henderson was a former dean of the school’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“D.A. Henderson truly changed the world for the better,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland. Henderson was most recently employed as a distinguished scholar at the center.

Henderson was working on smallpox eradication in 1966 at what is today the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the World Health Organization chose him to lead the global eradication effort.

The battle was essentially won during a 10-year period, 1967–77, by medical workers using a surveillance-and-containment strategy rather than the mass-vaccination approach used in the past. Much like the Ebola containment strategy recently employed in West Africa, the smallpox project focused on cases and outbreaks, progressively eliminating the disease from where it still existed in South America, West and Central Africa, Asia and finally East Africa.

The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977. The World Health Assembly declared the deadly disease eradicated in 1980.

“His impressive career contributed to saving millions of lives, and will continue to save lives for generations to come,” said Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.