He helped rid the world nearly 25 years ago of one of the most terrifying and deadly infectious diseases ever to assault the human race. Now, as an aging academic, he has been tapped to guard his country against its return.
Donald A. Henderson, M.D., known as "D. A.," has fought a lifelong battle against the scourge of smallpox. Earlier this month, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson asked the 73-year-old public health hero to serve as director of the newly created Office of Public Health Preparedness. He has been charged with upgrading the country's response to a bioterrorism attack.
Henderson left behind his role as director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, which he founded in 1995, at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. In that capacity he guided Johns Hopkins Hospital in the development and implementation of a $7 million bioterrorism preparedness plan.
In his new job he will coordinate a national response to public health emergencies, having at his disposal HHS' arsenal of resources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.
As early as three years ago, Henderson raised concerns that hospital staff members, likely a front line of defense in the event of a chemical or a biological attack, were unprepared to identify symptoms of anthrax or smallpox. He advocated investing more money in the public health infrastructure, including hospital emergency rooms and laboratories.
After directing the World Health Organization's global smallpox eradication campaign from 1966 to 1977, Henderson was dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health until 1990. He served as a public health adviser to former President Clinton in the early 1990s.
With his rich experience and knowledge, Henderson brings strong views to his new role. For example, he is opposed to vaccinating healthcare workers for smallpox in advance, worrying that a newly vaccinated healthcare worker could spread the live vaccinia virus to patients.