35 Who Made a Difference: D. A. Henderson- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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35 Who Made a Difference: D. A. Henderson

Eradicating one of history's deadliest diseases was just the beginning


In 1977, just as smallpox was making its last natural gasp, Henderson became dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. He joined the first Bush administration as head of life sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. ("I had to protest that I didn't think I was the right party," says Henderson, a lifelong Democrat, "but they wanted me anyway.") Later, he went head-to-head with the threat of biological terrorism as the first director of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness in the fall of 2001, just in time for the arrival of the anthrax letters. "I find this unfortunate that we really have to spend as much time and effort as we are, trying to combat diseases in which man is responsible for spreading it," he said at the time in an interview on public television. "There's so much in the way of problems out there, tuberculosis and AIDS and malaria, that I really regard this as a very unhappy kind of interlude in my life to have to revert to this; but I think the problem is so important that as a citizen I just can't walk away from it."

Henderson countered conventional wisdom again in 2002 by speaking out against global efforts to eradicate polio. According to him, such efforts are doomed to fail, in part because the polio vaccine must be administered in five doses to be effective. "I'm afraid eradication campaigns are destined to be on the dusty bookshelves of history," Henderson said to his stunned infectious disease colleagues in a controversial speech while he was at the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness. (He left his post in 2004 but still consults for the agency; he is also a resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.) Pointing to the threats to global public health from measles, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, he said that efforts should focus on prevention and control, not eradication. "I believe there is something to be eradicated," he said, “and that is the word eradication."

Speaking bluntly, it seems, is a tough habit to break.


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