The world lost a great man today. We have posted a summary of DA Henderson’s incredible life and achievements here, but that is only a glimpse into the story of his extraordinary life. We wanted to use this blog post to invite others who knew him, worked with him, or met him along the way to share their stories, tributes, fond memories of DA as one way of honoring him and sharing what people found to be so special about him. I will start.
DA’s professional life is almost beyond description. From the time he was a young doctor in public health, he was drawn to big problems and never stepped away from a challenge. In the 1960s, he was expected to fail as newly named Director of the smallpox eradication program, but more than a decade later – with the help of more than a million people along the way – he succeeded. Using the structures and programs built in that effort, DA became a global champion of the Expanded Program on Immunization, a childhood global immunization effort that has saved countless lives around the world. He changed the way schools of public health approached their mission. He brought public health thinking into the highest halls of government for Presidents Bush and Clinton. He started talking about emerging infectious diseases and deliberate biological threats in ways that were important and courageous, and that galvanized a cadre around the country and the world to commit themselves to these issues.
It was his conviction and leadership that led me into working on health security and public health. His calls to action, the clarity of his voice and reasoning, and his friendship all persuaded me to join him in this work and to help him start an organization focused on these issues 18 years ago. As of the start of this summer, he continued to be an ongoing important presence and voice in our Center that helped shape all of our thinking.
In the time that I was lucky enough to know him and work with him, I saw him provide his counsel to public health leaders around the world dealing with their crises of their day. I saw him accept almost every invitation to teach that came his way. I saw him wade into controversies without a moment’s hesitation when he believed something needed to be done or a course needed to be corrected.
It wouldn’t be surprising if someone as accomplished as DA became too busy to deal with the next generation. But DA was the opposite. He sat down with any aspiring student or colleague considering a life in public health. He was generous beyond belief with his time and his energies.
DA had the constant support of his incredible wife Nana and his kids who he adored. They were all on a tremendous journey along with him.
We will miss DA terribly. We hope his principles and experience and his teaching will live on in some small ways in all of us, and we know his work and his thinking will influence the rising generation of public health leaders in the US and around the world
If you have stories to share, tributes to offer, specific memories to pass on, we’d like to collect them below in the Comment section of this blog. We will share them with DA’s family and friends, and it will help all of us to hold on to a bit more of him. Please feel free to add to the Comment section directly.