Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: Smallpox—The Death of a Disease

Flash back three months ago towards the beginning of the summer, I was sitting in my bedroom, staring at the nine books that laid on my floor. I was deliberating too much intensely about which book I should crack first and how I would assemble a reading chronology that would introduce to me the various facets of smallpox in the best order possible. One by one, I began shuffling through the pages, reading the introduction and first chapter of each book. By the time I got to D.A. Henderson’s “Smallpox—The Death of a Disease,” I knew that this was the book to start me off on my summer of smallpox.

The book combines the elements of all our other reading in a rounded way. It begins with the historic scourge of smallpox (Pox Americana, Rotting Face, Plagues and People), discusses 20th century bureaucratic battles, details the eradication, and terrifies readers about past and impending biological disasters (Scourge, Biohazard, The Demon in the Freezer).

I was so impressed by DA Henderson. This was the person who had made it happen and he was able to share his story, thanks to a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that encourages scientists and public servants to write to the world . Reading Henderson’s book made me reconsider to what purpose was I working for a college degree. At that time in my life, I had thought I wanted to settle on a path towards an MD/MPH. It turns out that Henderson didn’t even care much for degrees and professional background in assembling a team. He writes, “[The] staff members made up for a lack of formal public health training with intelligence, common sense, flexibility, and imagination.” There was John Wickett, the mathematics major and ski bum who started in computer programming with the smallpox team, and then taught himself about WHO bureaucracy and smallpox, sticking around for 18 more years. After following Henderson’s tales about his team members, I realized that academic pedigree had no bearing for employment in the fields of these 3rd world countries. What mattered were characteristics like flexibility, persistence, innate competence, and a pinch of creativity.

This book is a great example that illustrates some of the lessons we have learnt during our SoCo about risk taking and being open to the serendipitous moments that passes by in life (Thanks, Bob!) . The smallpox eradication job fell to a person who felt he was overwhelmingly under-qualified for such a role, yet who took that risk anyways and would uproot his family to Geneva for ten years. While Henderson’s telling of the eradication plan did get redundant after descriptions about country-hopping from within Asia to Africa to South America, I think the greatest element to pull from the book is learning from the life of Henderson himself and the decisions and sacrifices he had to make to follow his gut feeling that anything is possible, including smallpox eradication.

Dr. D. A. Henderson in Ethiopia, administering a smallpox vaccination, ca. 1972

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