Intended for healthcare professionals


DA Henderson

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 01 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4742
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC
  1. BobRoehr{at}

Smallpox slayer

DA Henderson—he was always DA, no one remembers quite how or why, but the moniker stuck early—became the man most identified with eradication of smallpox. He was the right man at the right time to lead the thousands of public health workers across the globe who achieved that remarkable goal.

Smallpox marked the story of human history from the time of the pharaohs, just as it scarred the face of those it infected but did not kill. It was an indispensable ally of Europeans in their conquest of the Americas because it has no animal reservoir, and the native populations had not carried it in their small migrations from the old world to the new. Hundreds of generations without exposure to the virus left them particularly vulnerable to European invaders carrying the pathogen.

The modern era of smallpox vaccination began with Edward Jenner in 1796. By the middle of the 20th century the disease had became rare in the industrialised world but continued to run rampant in poorer regions. Rapid and increased global travel after the second world war and the highly contagious nature of smallpox meant that societies had to be vigilant against its reintroduction.

From cardiology to public health

Henderson initially had no particular interest in public health; he had planned on becoming a cardiologist. But completion of his schooling also meant the end of deferment from military service, and he faced the option of being drafted into the army as a private, or enlisting as an officer. The least boring option to him seemed to be the Public Health Service under the direction of the surgeon general.

He enlisted in 1955, and after …

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