Donald “D.A.” Henderson, MD, MPH, FIDSA, longtime IDSA member, was a preeminent leader in the field of infectious disease, public health, and global health. He is most well-known for successfully leading the effort to eradicate smallpox. His contributions to the field of infectious diseases and to global health have saved tens of millions of lives, and smallpox remains the only human infectious disease to be entirely eradicated to date.
Dr. Henderson was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He went on to pursue his medical degree, which he received in 1954 from University of Rochester. He then joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Communicable Disease Center, now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 1960, he received his masters of public health from Johns Hopkins University and became the chief of the virus surveillance section of the CDC.
In 1966, Dr. Henderson became director of the 10-year campaign to eradicate smallpox, led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and profiled in the recent Microbe Hunters
documentary series. By 1977, the last case of smallpox had occurred in Somalia, and the disease was declared eradicated. The success of the program paved the way for future vaccination and eradication efforts across the globe.
“The effect that Dr. Henderson had on the field of infectious diseases as both a pioneer and a mentor cannot be understated,” said IDSA President Johan Bakken, MD, PhD, FIDSA. “His dedication to public health profoundly changed the trajectory of treating patients and preventing the spread of disease across the globe.”
After working at WHO, Dr. Henderson became dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (now Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and served in that role until 1990. Dr. Henderson served in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He later founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, now the UPMC Center for Health Security.
He was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. A long-time IDSA member, he presented the Smadel Lecture at the IDSA Annual Meeting in 2002, and he received IDSA’s Society Citation in 1996. In the early 2000s, he was a member of IDSA’s Bioterrorism Work Group, which developed resources for ID clinicians on smallpox and other pathogens that potentially could be used in bioterrorist events. His work with smallpox was unprecedented within the field of global health and remains as a model for disease surveillance and vaccination campaigns for vaccine-preventable illness throughout the world today.
Dr. Henderson had a lasting impact on not only those who knew him personally, but all those familiar with his work to eradicate smallpox.
“D.A. Henderson’s impact on global health is incalculable. Today, no one is faced with the threat of natural smallpox, the US is much more resilient to the threat of bioterrorism, and a large number of physicians and public health practitioners are more adept (including me) because of his mentorship and guidance. He was the commander-in-chief of infectious disease, and the entire world owes him a debt of gratitude,” states colleague and mentee of D.A. Henderson, Amesh Adalja, MD, FIDSA.
Dr. Henderson is survived by his wife, Nana Bragg, his daughter, Leigh Henderson, and his two sons, David and Douglas Henderson.