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Donald A. Henderson

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his leading role as chief architect and implementer of the World Health Organization’s successful global eradication of smallpox.

He put an end to smallpox. Dr. Donald A. Henderson spearheaded the World Health Organization’s efforts to eradicate smallpox starting in 1966 — a task that many considered impossible. Thanks to his work, the last known case was found in 1977. The disease was officially eradicated in 1980. It’s one of only two diseases to successfully be swept from the planet.

The infectious disease caused a high fever and body aches, followed by a pus-filled rash of bumps. It killed 30 percent of infected people, and those who survived were often left disfigured or blind.

The World Health Organization had long attempted to tackle the deadly disease by vaccinating as many people as possible but could not effectively implement mass vaccination. When Dr. Henderson’s team faced a dwindling vaccine supply, and active smallpox infections in Brazil, Africa and South Asia, they established a new strategy by accident, called “ring vaccination.” This approach targets those most likely to catch the disease next, like a patient’s family and friends, and those most likely to spread it like merchants and farmers.

The strategy has since been used to control major outbreaks like Ebola, which recently swept across West Africa.

By Christine Ayala