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