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Smallpox: The Death of a Disease

by D. A. Henderson, MD

Read excerpts:
"Darkest Days of All," p. 177-184
"Last Case," p. 239-240
"World Health Assembly," p. 248-249

On June 2, 2009, Prometheus Books released Smallpox: the Death of a Disease, by D.A. Henderson, MD. This book is a personal recounting of how a global program began and ultimately succeeded in eradicating the world’s most long-standing and devastating pestilential disease. A disease that accounted for more than 10 million cases and 2 million deaths as recently as 1967 was reduced to zero cases in little more than ten years by a remarkable international team. It is a public health drama that ultimately involved some 200,000 people and the participation of staff from some 75 different countries working under the aegis of the World Health Organization.

D.A. Henderson, June 2, 2009: My hope in writing this book was to document the drama and challenge of public health and the potential of a cooperative international effort that even involved the U.S. and the Soviet Union working together during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. It was no less a tribute to dedicated field staffs who weathered some of the most difficult problems of famine, civil wars, refugees, floods, and privations of hostile environments in pursuit of a common goal—the end of smallpox. Ultimately, it was my hope to inspire and challenge a new generation of public health staff.

This was a long delayed effort. Over the past 20 years, many had encouraged me to provide a personal account of how the program actually succeeded-–its challenges and its frustrations-- but there were always more pressing professional obligations. Finally, with support from the Center and from the Sloan Foundation, I undertook to write the book.

The initial reactions have been exceptionally positive, perhaps most generously summarized by David Oshinsky, professor and 2006 Pulitzer Prize Laureate in History:

There has been no greater medical—or humanitarian—miracle in modern times than the eradication of smallpox . . . Now, for the first time, we have the inside story from the legendary public health official who led the global effort that brought this miracle about. (The book) is more than a riveting account of the day-to-day struggle for international cooperation in a divided world; it also offers a winning blueprint for the great medical challenges to come.



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