D.A. Henderson, an American public-health official who led the international campaign to eradicate smallpox in one of the greatest scientific endeavors of the 20th century, died on Friday. He was 87 years old.
Henderson’s death was announced Saturday by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he taught as a public-health professor.
When Henderson, then a 39-year-old epidemiologist, became the first chief of the World Health Organization’s smallpox-eradication unit in 1967, the virus killed an estimated two million people every year on three continents. By the end of his tenure there 10 years later, the disease was all but wiped out worldwide. The WHO certified in 1980 smallpox had been completely eradicated—a first in human history. Its absence spared an estimated 60 million lives that would’ve been lost during the almost four decades since then.
The enemy, which Henderson called “the oldest of scourges and the most devastating,” was an ancient one. Smallpox first appears in the historical record 5,000 years ago and never truly leaves it. The disease infected Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War and disfigured the 7-year-old Georgian boy who would become Joseph Stalin. It killed pharaohs and saints, tsars and peasants, merchants and nobles alike during its periodic waves throughout Africa and Eurasia. Millions of indigenous people died after its arrival in the New World, where it contributed to the depopulation of the Americas. An estimated 500 million people succumbed to the disease in the final century before its eradication. If homo sapiens had a nemesis, it was smallpox.