D.A. Henderson, the great unsung hero who vanquished smallpox, also died in 2016 – Here’s his story


Though now consigned to vials securely stored in a handful of research facilities around the world, smallpox was once a mighty foe indeed.

The disease brought down civilizations and changed the course of history in painful and unpleasant ways, killing peasantry and royalty alike throughout its gruesome evolution. Smallpox slaughtered an estimated 300 million people during the 20th century alone.

It took the ingenuity and determination of one man, leading a team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) to take the disease on and eventually vanquish the seemingly unstoppable harbinger of death.

D.A. Henderson, an American epidemiologist, died in the year of our Lord of 2016. His passing was barely noted, among a long list of high-profile celebrities who have passed on this year. He went peacefully, in a hospice facility in the town of Townson, Maryland, at the age of 87.

Yet, Henderson’s passing marks the end of a hugely successful and significant life lived in the confines of the medical world. He steadfastly led a sustained campaign against a terrible and implacable disease that had raged for centuries, killing, maiming, or blinding millions of sufferers.

Smallpox: The sleeping giant

Late in the first decade of the 1500s, Hernan Cortes landed in modern-day Mexico with a detachment of conquistadores. A year later, a second group of Spanish mercenaries arrived, hailing from Hispaniola island in the Caribbean. These men brought exogenous death along.

Cortes fought and defeated this group, but some of his own men became infected with a hidden killer, setting off a chain of events with deadly and far-reaching consequences.

Smallpox soon spread throughout the indigenous Aztec population like wildfire, as they had no natural immunity to such virulent, foreign, never-before-seen disease. In a short time, most of the Aztec army and an estimated 25% of the civilian population had perished.

Smallpox would take an even higher toll on the Incas. The disease ravaged through Colombia first, killing the Incan Emperor, his successor, decimating the top echelon of Incan society. Two of the emperor’s sons survived, soon engaging in a civil war for power that killed even more people. All told, smallpox eradicated between 60% to 90%
of the Incan population.

The disease’s trail of death rode on. North America’s Indian population also suffered a devastating fate. Hiding inside two blankets and one handkerchief taken from a smallpox ward, the virus entered Indian society and killed an estimated 1.5 Native Americans. The items had been given as gifts to two Indian chiefs.

Major smallpox outbreaks continued until the early 1900s, both in the Americas and elsewhere, due to contact with Europen colonists and traders. It arrived in Australia around 1789, bringing the Aboriginal population to its knees.

And so it went on, bringing death and suffering wherever it popped up.

Henderson and the WHO’s efforts

Donald Ainslie Henderson spent a great deal of his career working for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the WHO.

During his time in the CDC, where he worked as Chief of the surveillance programs for viruses, he and his team put forward a plan to eradicate a disease that had killed pharaohs, emperors, and kings.

Starting in 1967, Henderson and his field team worked on the ground in smallpox hot zones, fighting a natural monster that had brought death to so many.

The highly contagious disease is caused by the variola virus, and it’s transmitted through close contact with an infected subject, or inhalation of airborne droplets laden with virus. Depending on the disease’s course, the mortality rate ranges from about 30% to fatal.

Henderson and his team worked under stressful conditions at the best of times. The world was engaged neck-deep in the Cold War, for one. And the countries where the courageous scientist and his men were commissioned to work were already ravaged by wretched poverty, political upheaval, or all-out conflict.

But armed with a powerful vaccine in freeze-dried form (so it could easily withstand the highest African temperatures), Henderson worked tirelessly, using a technique called ring vaccination. Rather than vaccinating everyone, he injected the those who had had contact with smallpox victims, and those who had been in contact with these people. Thus, Henderson created a ‘ring of steel’ around those infected, preventing further spread. Smallpox is not carried by animals, which greatly helped to curtail its natural dissemination.

The team’s efforts spanned a decade. A Somali man was the last known patient to naturally contract the disease in 1977. This man would go on to make a full recovery, and passed away in 2013.

The world was officially certified as being smallpox-free in 1980.

Epilogue: A monster vanquished

D.A. Henderson wrote ‘Smallpox: The Death of a Disease’ in 2009. The book chronicled his heroic endeavor in eradicating a horrendous disease that had raged for centuries. The world is now safe from smallpox thanks to this man.

Smallpox is indeed one of only two diseases that have been completely eradicated, the other one being rinderpest, an infectious illness that affected cattle.

Henderson would continue working for many years, serving as an advisor on bioterrorism with the Bush and Clinton administrations, for example.

He passed away due to complications arising from a broken hip on August 19.

Small stocks of viable variola virus remain in existence. The CDC in Atlanta and a Russian facility in Siberia reportedly hold the sleeping monster. Henderson strenuously -but unsuccessfully- fought to have these samples destroyed, stating that any amount of smallpox, no matter how small, is dangerous.

And the greatest irony of it all is that since nobody has been infected with smallpox in generations, most of the world’s current population would now be highly susceptible to the disease, if an outbreak were to occur.