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D.A. Henderson: The Man Who Saved Millions of Lives

Donald Ainslie Henderson, MD, MPH ’60, who guided one of public health’s greatest victories—the international campaign to eradicate smallpox—and served as the School’s eighth dean, died on August 16, 2016 in Towson, Md. at age 87.

A self-described “disease detective” and known to all as “D.A.,” Dr. Henderson’s relentless battle against smallpox resulted in the only eradication of a human disease, one that killed an estimated 300 million in the twentieth century.

“D.A. was a force of nature who, until relatively recently, seemed invulnerable,”

“D.A. was a force of nature who, until relatively recently, seemed invulnerable,” Dean Michael J. Klag wrote to the School in an announcement of Dr. Henderson’s death. “Public health has lost a hero and we have lost a great friend and colleague.”

Dr. Henderson began his public health career in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Communicable Disease Center, which later became the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mentored by EIS founder Alex Langmuir, MD, MPH ’40, Dr. Henderson became chief of viral disease surveillance at EIS in 1961 and devised a campaign to eliminate smallpox and control measles in Africa.

In 1966, he took the lead in the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication program, overseeing the massive global effort, which enlisted more than 100,000 people in the campaign. In 1977, the last known case of smallpox was identified in Somalia. The World Health Assembly declared in 1980 that the disease had been eradicated.

Dr. Henderson served as dean of the former Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health—from which he received his MPH in 1960—from 1977 to 1990. During his deanship, the School quadrupled its budget and increased enrollment by 40 percent.

Dr. Henderson spent the rest of his life in public service, working to protect public health from a new threat: bioterrorism. In 1998 he founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and, after the tragic events of 2001, Henderson took over the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness where he oversaw a major federal grant program to strengthen emergency response programs in public health departments nationwide.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2009 he published Smallpox, The Death of a Disease, a book chronicling his efforts that led to the eradication of the disease.

By vanquishing one of humanity’s most destructive diseases, D.A. Henderson embodied the mission of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Protecting Health, Saving Lives—Millions at a Time. It’s difficult to grasp the impact of his work, but the sentiment voiced by JHSPH professor Chris Breyer comes close: "The eradication of that ancient, disfiguring and often fatal viral scourge is surely one of the single greatest triumphs of public health in human history. Ponder the human suffering this man prevented…” 

"Ponder the human suffering this man prevented…” 

To read tributes from Dr. Henderson’s colleagues and friends and to view videos spanning several decades of his life, please visit our tribute page.