Campus News

Dr. Donald A. Henderson ’50, who led the team that eradicated smallpox, dies at 87

August 22, 2016
Communications Staff

Physician and epidemiologist Donald A. Henderson ’50 (D.A. to friends), who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 for heading the World Health Organization team that eradicated smallpox worldwide, died August 19 at a hospice facility in Towson, Maryland. He was 87.

“I think it can be fairly said that the smallpox eradication was the single greatest achievement in the history of medicine,” Richard Preston, the best-selling author of volumes including “The Hot Zone,” about the Ebola virus, and “The Demon in the Freezer,” about smallpox, said in an interview with the Washington Post. He described Dr. Henderson to the Post as a “Sherman tank of a human being — he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way.” Henderson wrote about his involvement in the campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s and ’70s in his 2009 book Smallpox: The Death of a Disease.

Dean emeritus and professor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Henderson was a founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and the White House’s lead expert on bioterrorism during the George H. W. Bush administration.

In a 2011 interview with the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Henderson recalled how his work with the Oberlin Yearbook and his helping to found WOBC provided a foundation for the skills he needed for his work in epidemiology, which involve "a whole combination of things"—such as social interaction, political issues, and detecting patterns. "I enjoyed working with a group trying to achieve something," he says of his time with the yearbook. From WOBC he learned that he also enjoyed what he calls "the whole experience of administration. "It lends itself to tremendous creativity," he says. "It’s helpful if you don’t have an ego problem."

Dr. Henderson is survived by his wife, Nana Irene Bragg, sons David and Douglas, and daughter, Leigh.

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