Pitt Professor Organized Health Organization's Effort to Rid World of Smallpox

By Cronin, Mike | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Pitt Professor Organized Health Organization's Effort to Rid World of Smallpox


Cronin, Mike, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


For millennia, smallpox felled 30 percent of those it infected, be they pharaohs or peasants. The pustules and fever that wracked the diseased terrified populations throughout the globe.

Then came Dr. D.A. Henderson. In 1966, the distinguished scholar at UPMC's Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore spearheaded the World Health Organization's effort to rid the world of smallpox.

"Dr. Henderson was an untiring leader," said Dr. David L. Heymann, an assistant director-general with the WHO, in an e-mail from London. "His charisma and devotion were impressive. He was like the pied piper of smallpox eradication, rallying smallpox workers and governments alike."

By 1979, the virus vanished as a naturally occurring affliction. It is the first, and only, infectious disease humankind has vanquished.

"We recruited lots of younger people around the world, who didn't know we couldn't do it," said Henderson, 80, a University of Pittsburgh professor of public health and medicine. "We took on every challenge you can imagine -- civil war, famine, refugees -- and somehow we were able to get through it."

Henderson's new book, "Smallpox--The Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer" comes as the world celebrates the 30th anniversary of the elimination of smallpox.

Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and former governor of Wisconsin, named Henderson as the inaugural director of the national Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness in 2001. Henderson served there for four years.

Henderson created the organizational structure available for today's public-health officials to use in fighting diseases such as bird flu and swine flu, Thompson said in a Wednesday phone interview from Washington. …

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