When you have been reading a magazine long enough, you check out your favorite sections first. I start with the last page of the Economist. What's there? An obit essay.
Yep. About somebody who died. Almost always, the person who died would have done something wonderfully constructive. Sometimes, the obit is to be thankful that an awful person is no more. It is in this latter category that I hope to read about Mugabe really, really soon.
When it is about a constructive contribution, often the person is one who is not really a household name. Which is all the more that I love that last page. Like this time. It was about Donald Ainslie (“D.A.”) Henderson. Up until I read this, I had no idea about this Henderson!
As a teenager, Henderson became obsessed with smallpox after the virus re-visited New York City, which panicked the residents.
He wanted to study the causes, spread and suppression of epidemics. Rather than serve in the army he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Communicable Disease Centre in Atlanta, for what he called “firefighter” training. As soon as a disease broke out anywhere in the world, he would dash to tackle it—becoming a proper “shoe-leather” epidemiologist, as opposed to a “shiny-pants” desk-bound sort. When he was hauled away from his anti-smallpox work in west Africa and sent to Geneva for the WHO in 1967, at 38, he wasn’t thrilled. But if they wanted the world rid of the virus in ten years, he would give it his best shot.
From the stories I have heard from my father and grandmothers, smallpox was one mighty enemy that people feared. A cousin of my father's was a typical survivor, with scars on his face as evidence of the battle. By the time we kids came along, the worry was only about chickenpox. We owe it all to Dr. Henderson and his “surveillance-containment” towards "Target Zero":
Problems rose up constantly. In Ethiopia, rebels attacked the vaccinators. Afghanistan brought deep snow and no maps. In Bangladesh trucks could not cross the bamboo bridges; in India mourners had to be stopped from floating smallpox corpses down the Ganges. He experienced most of this himself, frequently decamping from cramped Geneva armed with “Scottish wine” (his favourite medicine) to urge on the troops. Out in the trenches he also faced the full horror of what he was fighting. At a hospital in Dhaka the stench of leaking pus, the pustule-covered hands stretched towards him, the flies clustering on dying eyes, convinced him anew that he had to win this war.
The last recorded case was in 1977. A decade after he was appointed to the job, Henderson did rid of the world of this monster.
To borrow from Einstein, we are standing on the shoulders of giants who made our lives so easy.
Thanks, Dr. Henderson.