Notable Deaths ›

Dr. Donald Henderson (1928 - 2016)

Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Donald Henderson (1928 - 2016)

Dr. Donald Henderson, an epidemiologist who led the effort that eliminated smallpox, died Aug. 19, 2016, according to multiple news sources. He was 87.

The cause was complications from a broken hip, said his daughter, Leigh Henderson. He died at a hospice facility in Towson, Maryland.

Henderson described himself as a “disease detective” who was an official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Smallpox was a disease that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century. The World Health Organization decided to take on the elimination of smallpox and Henderson moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1966 to direct the campaign.


Click to get weekly celebrity death news delivered to your inbox.


“Smallpox has been called one of the most loathsome diseases,” Henderson told The Washington Post in 1979. “I know that no matter how many visits I made to smallpox wards filled with seriously ill and dying patients, I always came away shaken.”

Henderson directed tens of thousands of field workers who ventured into countries plagued by conditions such as war, poverty, and political instability. They used a strategy called ring vaccination that located smallpox patients, isolated them, vaccinated everyone who had contact with the victims, and then vaccinated everyone who had contact with those people.

By 1977, the last known case of smallpox occurred in Somalia. Three years later, the World Health Assembly certified that smallpox had been eradicated.

“I think it can be fairly said that the smallpox eradication was the single greatest achievement in the history of medicine,” Richard Preston, the best-selling author of volumes including “The Hot Zone,” about the Ebola virus, and “The Demon in the Freezer,” about smallpox, said in an interview. He described Henderson as a “Sherman tank of a human being — he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way.”

Later, Henderson served as dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and as a science and bioterrorism adviser for the federal government.

Survivors include his wife and three children.

We invite you to share condolences for Dr. Donald Henderson in our Guest Book.