The lion and the path

Dr. D.A. Hen­der­son qui­etly achieved the im­pos­si­ble and shared the credit

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jo R. Martin Jo R. Martin ( jo­martin.writer@gmail.com) is a Baltimore writer who served as com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at the Hop­kins public health school dur­ing four years of Dr. Hen­der­son’s ten­ure. The in­sti­tu­tion is now the Hop­kins Bloomberg School of P

An ex­tra­or­di­nary man died last month un­der achingly or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. His 87-year-old body could not over­come a staph in­fec­tion re­sult­ing from a hip frac­ture. His wife and three chil­dren were with him when he died.

Dr. Don­ald Ainslee Hen­der­son, an Ohio na­tive lately of Baltimore, a fam­ily man and a physi­cian who pre­ferred to be called D. A., changed the world and shared the credit. It was so like him, this man of un­der­state­ments.

To the world he was Dr. D.A. Hen­der­son-Who-Erad­i­cated-Small­pox when he was chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer for the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s small­pox ini­tia­tive that be­gan in 1966. It took 11 years and le­gions of peo­ple to elim­i­nate the virus that maimed and killed mil­lions of hu­mans over at least 10,000 years.

The WHO pro­gram worked be­cause Dr. Hen­der­son knew it could. He had nei­ther the time nor the in­cli­na­tion for pol­i­tics or ne­go­ti­a­tions. When there was a prob­lem, he flew from the com­mand post in Geneva to the source to fix it, or he triaged it to a trusted col­league from the ap­pro­pri­ate agency or na­tion.

Like the man, it was just that sim­ple and that com­pli­cated.

When the last small­pox case was con­firmed in So­ma­lia in 1977, Dr. Hen­der­son was mid-ca­reer and barely mid­dle age. What could he pos­si­bly do next? The an­swer was in Baltimore, where he came to be dean of the Hop­kins School of Hy­giene and Public Health, one of the old­est and largest such in­sti­tu­tions in the world. D.A. had earned a master’s de­gree in public health at Hop­kins, so he was fa­mil­iar with the in­tri­ca­cies of academia.

Public health is not as sexy as tra­di­tional medicine. It deals with en­tire pop­u­la­tions, and the sub­spe­cial­ties are dis­ci­plines like tox­i­col­ogy, pol­icy and man­age­ment, en­vi­ron­men­tal health and statis­tics. Prac­ti­tion­ers have cre­den­tials like Doc­tor of Public Health and Master of Health Sci­ence. Many stu­dents, fac­ulty mem­bers and alumni are physi­cians who head na­tional health agen­cies around the globe.

Dean Don­ald A. Hen­der­son may have been a leg­end in his own time, but he wasn’t the one talk­ing about it. He re­mained hum­ble in a rar­efied con­stel­la­tion of lesser stars. To us he was al­ways just D.A., tall and sturdy and no-non­sense with a ca­sual sense of hu­mor. Even his sur­round­ings were out­stand­ing by their un­der­state­ment. Un­like other lu­mi­nar­ies on cam­pus, D.A. worked in an of­fice of cin­der block walls painted beige in an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to dis­guise their util­i­tar­ian pur­pose. The chairs and sofa were or­ange faux leather, and the mas­sive desk more than likely came out of stor­age. We called it “The Tem­ple to Nau­gahyde.”

D.A.’s 13-year ten­ure had the stan­dard aca­demic in­trigues and com­pli­ca­tions, The late Dr. Don­ald Hen­der­son holds a sculp­ture he re­ceived as a gift in Africa. It de­picts a small­pox vic­tim and was made by the African sculp­tor Mas­sengo. but I re­call only the per­sonal in­stances when his in­tel­lect and em­pa­thy guided al­most im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tions. The most strik­ing was the death of hus­band and wife fac­ulty mem­bers in a fiery crash as they were driv­ing their daugh­ter to her fresh­man year of col­lege. The daugh­ter sur­vived, but she and her two broth­ers at home could not have nav­i­gated the en­su­ing weeks with­out ten­der care.

It came from the dean, who was their par­ents’ boss and a stranger. I clearly re­mem­ber sit­ting in his of­fice with the older son as D.A. led him through details no teenager should have to han­dle, like fu­neral plans, rel­a­tives from out of town, in­sur­ance poli­cies, and the de­ci­sion as to whether they wanted to be at home or with friends for the time be­ing.

When I wrote a book about my child’s drug ad­dic­tion, D.A. and his wife, Nana, came to the small cel­e­bra­tion at a col­league’s home. It was a Fri­day evening af­ter a hec­tic week of travel and speeches, but there he was. I sensed he was as proud of my ac­com­plish­ment as any of his own.

D.A. re­ceived nu­mer­ous hon­ors through­out his ca­reer, and it was no se­cret that he was nom­i­nated for a No­bel Prize ev­ery year. That was not to be, which was fine with him be­cause he con­sid­ered the small­pox pro­gram a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort. It is pos­si­ble that it was praise enough to be called on by Bill and Melinda Gates for strate­gies to elim­i­nate po­lio and by three U.S. pres­i­dents for his ex­per­tise in bioter­ror­ism.

And that brings us to the joke about “The Lion and the Path.” Dean Hen­der­son re­ceived hun­dreds of in­vi­ta­tions to speak around the globe, and he man­aged to honor many of them. The topics var­ied, and he never took the easy way out by de­liv­er­ing a boil­er­plate ad­dress. In­stead, he di­rected the staff to re­spond to in­quiries and say he would speak about “The Lion and the Path.” To each au­di­ence, he made sure that no mat­ter what he said, it in­volved a lion and a path.

More times than we could count, we asked, “Should we use your fa­vorite ti­tle?”

“You bet.” he in­vari­ably re­sponded with a sly smile.

The lion and his path. How fit­ting it seems now.

BAR­BARA HADDOCK TAY­LOR/BALTIMORE SUN

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