Henderson and the triumph of science
At a time when Hillary Clinton gets applause by declaring, “I believe in science,” it’s worth taking a moment to remember the life and achievements of Donald Ainslee Henderson. All he did with science was eradicate smallpox.
Dr. Henderson died Friday at age 87 in Towson, not far from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, where he had been dean emeritus. In the early 1960s, while working for the Centers for Disease Control, he and his team began an ambitious program to eliminate smallpox in 18 African countries.
At the time, “the red death” was killing two million people a year around the world. In earlier centuries, smallpox epidemics had ravaged the world’s continents, striking down peasants and potentates alike, wiping out entire populations. In the late 18th century, an early form of vaccination with the related cowpox virus began to show success in Europe and America, but smallpox continued unabated in most of the world.
In 1965, the Soviet Union demanded that the United Nations’ World Health Organization do something about it. The WHO, with the sort of bureaucratic caution that still plagues the U.N. today, was reluctant to take on the job.
In an oral history, Henderson would recall that WHO’s director general called the U.S. surgeon general with a demand: “I want an American to run the program, because when it goes down, when it fails, I want it to be seen that there is an American there, and the U.S. is really responsible for this dreadful thing that you have launched the World Health Organization into, and the person I want is Henderson.”
Dr. Henderson and his team did not fail. They succeeded spectacularly. By 1980, the disease was declared gone from the face of the earth.
In his 2009 book, “Smallpox: The Death of a Disease,” Dr. Henderson recalled that it wasn’t just about defeating smallpox but about defeating the WHO bureaucracy. When his team needed a supply of vaccine, it would ask the WHO for it but, anticipating long delays, also secured supplies through back channels. By the time the WHO supply came through two years later, the original outbreak had been contained and the WHO supply could be used elsewhere.
Dr. Henderson was a “Sherman tank of a human being — he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way,” the author Richard Preston told The Washington Post. In 2002, a Republican president awarded Dr. Henderson the Medal of Freedom. Today’s Republican presidential nominee touts discredited studies about the dangers of vaccines. Today the U.S. Congress fails to fund the CDC’s fight against the Zika virus. Today, acknowledging global warming is optional.
Those who “believe in science” must do as Dr. Henderson did: Bulldoze the obstacles aside.