Donald Ainslie Henderson, the charismatic public health official who led the World Health Organization's successful effort to eradicate smallpox and later turned his attention to bioterrorism, died Friday at Gilchrist Hospice in Towson of complications after a hip fracture. He was 87.
Dr. Henderson, who went by "D.A.," was a giant in his field. He served at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, became the eighth dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and worked for three presidents in Washington on health threats.
He was best known for his work in the 1960s and '70s, when he led the fight against smallpox, an infectious disease that was one of the world's greatest killers until the vaccination campaign.
"It's definitely, if not the greatest, among the top five greatest achievements in the history of medicine," said Karen Kruse Thomas, historian at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Henderson grew up in Ohio, the son of an engineer and a nurse. He trained as a doctor, following the expectations of his family. He graduated in 1950 from Oberlin College, where he met his future wife, and in 1954 from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Called for military service, he chose to enter the U.S. Public Health Service, launching his career.
"He thought if he had gone into one of the other ... branches, he would just be examining recruits for fitness, so he thought ... public health would be much more interesting," said his daughter, Leigh Henderson of Baltimore.
After completing medical training, Dr. Henderson went to work at the CDC, then known as the Communicable Disease Center. In 1966, he was selected to lead the global smallpox effort — a campaign that was widely expected to fail, as attempts to wipe out other diseases had done.
But Dr. Henderson seized on a more efficient and cost-effective vaccination technology, the bifurcated needle, and focused attention on stopping outbreaks at the source, with his teams vaccinating people who came in contact with victims rather than attempting to mount a mass campaign.
The last known natural case of smallpox occurred in 1977, and the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980.
"Think about it: He did it in a time when there were no fax machines, when there were no computers, when there were no cellphones," said Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "They did it with pencil and paper and just management techniques."
Dr. Henderson, who earned a degree from the Hopkins school of public health in 1960, returned to Baltimore to become dean of the school in 1977. He held the position until 1990, despite initially resisting the role. He once told The Baltimore Sun that he thought such schools were "dinosaurs" where researchers had great ideas but seldom got their hands dirty.
During his tenure, the school's budget and enrollment grew, and 13 new centers and institutes were established, even as federal resources shrank, Ms. Thomas said. Working with Johns Hopkins Hospital leaders, he directed resources to AIDS research and pushed for hands-on training.
Dr. Henderson also appointed the school's first female academic dean and the first African-American associate dean.
"He basically took the school out of the ivory tower and [put it] out onto the front lines of public health," Ms. Thomas said.
Dr. Klag first met Dr. Henderson while he was a student.
"As a student, he could be scary because he was such a senior person in the field, and he was big and he did not suffer fools gladly," Dr. Klag said. "In a sense, he didn't care what other people thought about academic issues or research issues. He was more than willing to ... state his case, even if it upset the apple cart."
Dr. Henderson argued vigorously for the destruction of smallpox samples, and in 1998 co-founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies to direct attention toward biological threats. Later it became the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, with offices in Baltimore.
"If I weren't worried, I wouldn't be doing this," he told The Sun in 1999. Besides, he added, "I don't see anybody else doing it."
Despite his larger-than-life persona, Dr. Henderson also was interested in young people, responding to inquiries from students and maintaining an "open-door" policy, said Tom Inglesby, who met him as a student and now leads the UPMC Center for Health Security.
Dr. Henderson once arrived late to a dinner held in his honor because he stayed to talk with students after one of his lectures, Dr. Klag recalled.
Dr. Henderson wrote two books, including "Smallpox: Death of a Disease," a memoir published in 2009. He was still working at the time of his death, assembling an online archive of material related to the smallpox campaign with his daughter and consulting on the Ebola response.
A lifelong Democrat, he worked in Washington under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
"I think D.A. would have admitted that we've made progress, for sure," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, a former undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, who met Dr. Henderson in the 1980s and co-founded the bioterrorism center with him. "He was also very critical of not having made more progress."
He won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. He received honorary degrees from 17 universities and special awards from 19 countries.
"The smallpox program, he never felt that that was his achievement," his daughter said. He felt that "was the achievement of the rather remarkable people in the field and their dedication and ingenuity."
Dr. Henderson was married for 64 years to the former Nana Bragg, whom he met working on the yearbook at Oberlin. Their next anniversary would have been Sept. 1.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Henderson is survived by two sons, David Henderson, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Douglas Henderson, who lives in Berlin, Germany.
When staff at the hospice center asked Friday what his religion was, one of his sons suggested pragmatism, said Dr. O'Toole.
"That was really the essence of D.A.," O'Toole said. "He was very focused on what can you get done in a fast-moving, chaotic situation where there's a lot of fear and a lot of confusion and you don't have all the facts and you don't have all the resources you'd like to have. How can you move forward?
"He was just a genius at doing that, regardless of the context."
Baltimore Sun reporter John-John Williams contributed to this article.