Charismatic, confident, whip smart and self-assured, Donald Henderson took naturally to the leadership positions he would occupy from as early as 1955. Within just two months of his recruitment to the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), the disease-detection branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga, Henderson suddenly found himself at the helm — at 27, the acting chief of the elite unit.
Thrust into the role after his boss departed for another job, Henderson was "obviously underqualified," as he recalled years later. But he thrived and soon became the CDC's director of viral disease surveillance. Taking after his mentor, EIS founder Alexander Langmuir, Henderson practiced what he called "shoe leather epidemiology," often leaving the office to collect data and conduct interviews in the field. ("The converse type was the office-bound 'shiny pants' epidemiologist,'" he noted.)
In 1966, Henderson was tapped to take over the global smallpox eradication program in Geneva, an undertaking many believed would end in failure, as had previous efforts to eradicate yellow fever, yaws and malaria. At points along the way, Henderson himself had his doubts. Civil wars, droughts and famines and the mass movement of refugees — these and more threatened time and again to derail the program.
But he and his army of "eradicators" – everyone from Dr. William H. Foege, who developed the concept of "ring vaccination" that was key to the program's success (and is now being studied for use against Ebola), to the tens of thousands of community health workers who carried out his grand plans — pressed on, putting aside personal comfort and safety to achieve the goal. They managed to do so in just over a decade. Smallpox had killed 2 million people per year but was completely eradicated as of 1977 due to Henderson's work.
Henderson died on Aug. 19, 2016 in Towson, Md., from the complications of a hip fracture. He was 87.