Donald Henderson
Henderson with his Presidential Medal of Freedom in July 2002
Donald Ainslie Henderson

(1928-09-07)September 7, 1928
DiedAugust 19, 2016(2016-08-19) (aged 87)
Alma materUniversity of Rochester
Known forEradicating smallpox
AwardsErnst Jung Prize (1976)
Public Welfare Medal (1978)
National Medal of Science (1986)
Japan Prize (1988)
Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal (1994)
Calderone Prize (1999)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (2002)
Scientific career
InstitutionsWorld Health Organization
Johns Hopkins University
University of Pittsburgh
UPMC Center for Health Security

Donald Ainslie Henderson (September 7, 1928 – August 19, 2016) was an American medical doctor, educator, and epidemiologist who directed a 10-year international effort (1967–1977) that eradicated smallpox throughout the world and launched international childhood vaccination programs.[1] From 1977 to 1990, he was Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.[2] Later, he played a leading role in instigating national programs for public health preparedness and response following biological attacks and national disasters.[3] At the time of his death, he was Professor and Dean Emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as Distinguished Scholar at the UPMC Center for Health Security.[4][5][6]

Early life and education

Henderson was born in Lakewood, Ohio, on September 7, 1928, of Scots-Canadian immigrant parents.[7] His father, David Henderson, was an engineer; his mother, Eleanor McMillan, was a nurse. His interest in medicine was inspired by a Canadian uncle, William McMillan, who was a general practitioner and senior member of the Canadian House of Commons.[8]

Henderson (first man on left) as part of the CDC's smallpox eradication team in 1966.

Henderson graduated from Oberlin College in 1950 and received his MD from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in 1954. He was a resident physician in medicine at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York, and, later, a Public Health Service Officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Communicable Disease Center (now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—CDC). He earned an MPH degree in 1960 from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health).[8]

Research and career

Eradication of smallpox

Henderson served as Chief of the CDC virus disease surveillance programs from 1960 to 1965, working closely with epidemiologist Alexander Langmuir. During this period, he and his unit developed a proposal for a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program to eliminate smallpox and control measles during a 5-year period in 18 contiguous countries in western and central Africa.[9] This project was funded by USAID, with field operations beginning in 1967.[8]

The USAID initiative provided an important impetus to a World Health Organization (WHO) program to eradicate smallpox throughout the world within a 10-year period. In 1966, Henderson moved to Geneva to become director of the campaign. At that time, smallpox was occurring widely throughout Brazil and in 30 countries in Africa and South Asia. More than 10 million cases and 2 million deaths were occurring annually. Vaccination brought some control, but the key strategy was "surveillance-containment". This technique entailed rapid reporting of cases from all health units and prompt vaccination of household members and close contacts of confirmed cases. WHO staff and advisors from some 73 countries worked closely with national staff. The last case occurred in Somalia on October 26, 1977, only 10 years after the program began.[8] Three years later, the World Health Assembly recommended that smallpox vaccination could cease. Smallpox is the first human disease ever to be eradicated.[10] This success gave impetus to WHO's global Expanded Program on Immunization, which targeted other vaccine-preventable diseases, including poliomyelitis, measles, tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough.[11] Now targeted for eradication are poliomyelitis and Guinea Worm disease; after 25 years, this objective is close to being achieved.[6][12]

Later work

From 1977 through August 1990, Henderson was Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. After being awarded the 1986 National Medal of Science by Ronald Reagan for his work leading the World Health Organization (WHO) smallpox eradication campaign, Henderson launched a public struggle to reverse the Reagan administration's decision to default on WHO payments.[13] In 1991, he was appointed associate director for life sciences, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President (1991–93) and, later, deputy assistant secretary and senior science advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).[8] In 1998, he became the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, now the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.[4]

Following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson asked Henderson to assume responsibility for the Office of Public Health Preparedness (later the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response).[14][15][16] For this purpose, $3 billion was appropriated by Congress.[8]

In 2006, Henderson published an academic paper critical of social distancing as a pandemic measure, saying it would "result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems".[17][18]

At the time of his death, he served as the Editor Emeritus of the academic journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science).[19]

Honors and awards

Seventeen universities conferred honorary degrees on Henderson.[36]

Selected publications

Personal life

Henderson married Nana Irene Bragg in 1951.[7][22] The couple had a daughter and two sons, whom they raised in Atlanta, Georgia and Geneva, Switzerland.[22][36] He died at Gilchrist Hospice, Towson, Maryland, at the age of 87, after fracturing his hip.[7][36][37]


  1. ^ Sinha, Paul (15 June 2017). Episode 1 (season 3). Paul Sinha's History Revision (Radio Broadcast). BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 20 June 2017.
  2. ^ Deans of the Bloomberg School. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  3. ^ D. A. Henderson to Direct New Office of Public Health Preparedness CIDRAP News. November 6, 2001. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  4. ^ a b "Our Staff: D. A. Henderson, MD, MPH. UPMC Center for Health Security. 2015. Retrieved September 16, 2015, 2015". Archived from the original on November 14, 2017. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  5. ^ Donald Henderson – Faculty Directory | Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Donald Henderson - Faculty Directory | Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health". Archived from the original on 2015-09-14. Retrieved 2015-10-20.. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Breman, Joel (2016). "Donald Ainslie Henderson (1928–2016) Epidemiologist who led the effort to eradicate smallpox". Nature. 538 (7623): 42. doi:10.1038/538042a. PMID 27708300.
  7. ^ a b c Williams, John. "D.A. Henderson, the former dean of Bloomberg School of Public Health credited with eradicating smallpox, dies". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Henderson, D.A. Smallpox: The Death of a Disease. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009. p. 21.
  9. ^ Henderson, D; Klepac, P (2013). "Lessons from the Eradication of Smallpox: An Interview with D. A. Henderson". Philos Trans R Soc B. 368 (1623): 20130113. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0113. PMC 3720050. PMID 23798700.
  10. ^ Health Topics: Smallpox. World Health Organization. 2015. Retrieved September 16, 2015
  11. ^ Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals: National Programmes and Systems. World Health Organization. 2015. Retrieved October 10, 2015.
  12. ^ Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals: The Expanded Programme on Immunization. World Health Organization. 2015. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  13. ^ The Other Time a U.S. President Withheld WHO Funds. JHSPH. April 21, 2020. Retrieved April 22, 2020.
  14. ^ D. A. Henderson to Direct New Office of Public Health Preparedness. CIDRAP News. November 6, 2001. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  15. ^ HHS Historical Highlights. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2014. Retrieved September 17, 2015.
  16. ^ Statement of Tommy G. Thompson: Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services. US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. Washington, DC: Assistant Secretary for Legislation, Department of Health and Human Services; 2015. "Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary, HHS". Archived from the original on 2016-11-04. Retrieved 2017-09-09.. Retrieved September 17, 2015.
  17. ^ Lipton, Eric; Steinhauer, Jennifer (2020-04-22). "The Untold Story of the Birth of Social Distancing". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-11-05.
  18. ^ "Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza". DocumentCloud. November 2006. Retrieved 2021-11-05.
  19. ^ Health Security: Editorial Board, Mary Ann Liebert Inc., retrieved 22 August 2016
  20. ^ Previous Medal Winners. Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  21. ^ Public Welfare Medal. National Academy of Sciences. 2015. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  22. ^ a b c "Donald Henderson, epidemiologist who helped to eradicate smallpox – obituary", The Telegraph, 21 August 2016, retrieved 22 August 2016
  23. ^ The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details – Donald A. Henderson. National Science Foundation. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  24. ^ Laureates of the Japan Prize: The 1988 (4th) Japan Prize. The Japan Prize Foundation. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  25. ^ "jThe Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal Award". Sabin Vaccine Institute. 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  26. ^ Anniversary Discourse & Awards. The New York Academy of Medicine. Archived 2011-02-19 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  27. ^ Stanwell-Smith R (1996). "Immunization: Celebrating the Past and Injecting the Future". J R Soc Med. 89 (9): 509–513. doi:10.1177/014107689608900909. PMC 1295915. PMID 8949520.
  28. ^ "The Chiefs Order. Clan Henderson Society. 2013". Archived from the original on October 9, 2016.
  29. ^ President Bush Announced the Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. White House Office of the Press Secretary. June 21, 2002. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  30. ^ Bush Honors 12 with Presidential Medal of Freedom. The New York Times. July 9, 2002. Retrieved August 24, 2015
  31. ^ President Ma Bestows Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon on Professor Donald A. Henderson of University of Pittsburgh. Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan). July 4, 2013. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  32. ^ Republic of China (Taiwan) Honors D. A. Henderson. UPMC Center for Health Security. July 8, 2013. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  33. ^ "Biography of Laureate. Prince Mahidol Award Foundation". Archived from the original on January 3, 2017.
  34. ^ The Announcement for the Prince Mahidol Award 2014. Prince Mahidol Award Foundation. November 6, 2014. Archived 2017-01-03 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  35. ^ Dr. Charles Merieux Award for Achievement in Vaccinology and Immunology. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  36. ^ a b c Donald Ainslee Henderson, 1928-2016, UPMC Center for Health Security, 20 August 2016, retrieved 22 August 2016
  37. ^ Archives Reference: The Donald A. Henderson Collection in the Institute of the History of Medicine Library at Johns Hopkins spans his career in smallpox eradication, including newspaper articles, honors, biographical material, lecture notes, speeches, and correspondence as well as medals and other awards.

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