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Thursday, December 29, 2016

A 2016 death that you should honor

2016 is a great year. Leicester City won its first Premier League championship in its 132 years. The Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. Cleveland won its first championship in 51 years. And the American working class won back the presidency after eight years of socialism.

But there were deaths of note, and at least one giant who went to heaven without much acclaim.

Donald Ainslie Henderson.

Born in Lakewood, Ohio, on September 7, 1928, Doctor Henderson grew up to be an epidemiologist.

And by grew up, I mean studied hard at Oberlin, and the University of Rochester School of Medicine. He later joined the forerunner to the CDC, as he had a great interest in public health.

In 1967, Henderson headed the team that eradicated smallpox. It was a 10-year effort.

In the 20th century, smallpox killed a half-billion people. That was more than the number of fatalities in World Wars I and II. Far more.

The eradication program was done as part of a United States Aid for International Development project to vaccinate people in Africa. This was the kind of foreign aid we should do, rather than handing over chunks of money to dictators.

In 1977, Ali Maow Maalin, a hospital cook in Somalia, became the last person get a natural case of smallpox.

Smallpox became the first disease eradicated by man.

He did not rest on his laurels. From the Smithsonian magazine:
Donald Ainslie Henderson, known to his friends as D.A., could never be accused of being wishy-washy. As President Bush's lead expert on bioterrorism—a post to which he was appointed one month after the September 11 terrorist attacks—he used language that government officials rarely do. When the FBI investigated a biologist for transporting infectious organisms in the course of research, he said the bureau had "lost all perspective." He has also spoken out against official policy by urging the destruction of all laboratory stockpiles of the smallpox virus and calling for a reassessment of the international strategy to wipe out polio.
9/11 came four days after his 73rd birthday.

From Doctor Henderson's obituary in the Washington Post in August:
“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 Dr. Henderson as a “Sherman tank of a human being — he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way.”
For millennia, at least since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, smallpox had ravaged its way around the world. Caused by the variola virus, it was an exceptionally painful and gruesome disease. Victims suffered from fever and other flulike symptoms before developing a rash of the pustules that gave the disease its nickname: the speckled monster. It killed a third of its victims and left survivors disfigured, sometimes blind.
“Smallpox has been called one of the most loathsome diseases,” Dr. 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.”
I cite Doctor Henderson's death not to diminish the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and other cultural icons. Their contributions to society are valid.

Whether their impact is as lasting as Mozart, Beethoven, or Pachelbel remains to be seen. But their contributions do matter. Without a song or a laugh, life is miserable.

But let us not forget men like Doctor Henderson. He did not live a life of quiet desperation, but achieved greatness without as much fanfare.

Now for Pachelbel.



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7 comments:

  1. I'd like to give 10 cools. Henderson deserves that many, and more.

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  2. I'd feel happier if the US and Russian laboratory samples were destroyed.

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    Replies
    1. You have to make the assumption that there are no outstanding sources in the hands of potential enemies or extant in the world in order to take that step. Doing so could be a fatal error.

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    2. Still don't understand the need to risk keeping a sample for that purpose. Wouldn't the very first modern case to turn up provide as much of a sample as the lab specimen? If so, why risk it?

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  3. My Dad diagnosed and treated one of the last cases of smallpox in Africa. After he reported it he received 50,000 doses of vaccine which he used on the population surrounding that one case. He never saw another while we were there.
    One other thing he did that I think I've mentioned here before was primary research that demonstrated that the likelihood of Bilharzia transmmition was less in bodies of water where ducks were introduced. This was never written up in a journal. He simply reported the findings of a project he did on a local reservoir and had the local health commissioner do the measurements in order to eliminate bias on his part. The health commissioner actually had a bet against a positive finding, so he had no interest whatsoever in finding in my Dad's favor. Once, when temperatures got down to thirty seven degrees F, many of the cattle in the area died. One family came down with full blown symptoms of pneumonia bit had negative x-rays. After talking to them for some time he found that they had eaten one of the cattle that had died. Despite them cooking it fully, the cell wall toxins of the pneumococcus remained chemically stable and caused that whole family to have all the symptoms of pneumonia without having a bacterial infection.

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  4. A great man. I wonder what he thought of cultist fools who refuse to get their kids vaccinated?

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