In our senior year, our program director puts together a few after-dinner get togethers with notables from the medical field who happen to live in the area. Lucky for me, this happens at his house, about 2 blocks north of me.
Tonight we had a nice sit down with D. A. Henderson. Interesting guy. He told the whole story tonight of how smallpox was eradicated. Basically, the opportunity to head the WHO smallpox eradication campaign in the 1960s and 1970s was forced into his lap due to a bunch of political machinations. LBJ had a West African smallpox eradication program which he fell into, after working at the CDC's Epidemiology Information Service and rising through its ranks while it was quite small. The Russians wanted the WHO to start a worldwide vaccination program, but weren't willing to back it unless they could pin the blame on America if it failed (as had the previous WHO malarial eradication campaign). So Dr Henderson got basically forced into the position. It sounds like it was a bit of a slog, but in 1980, after a last case in Somalia, smallpox was declared eradicated.
He worked after that on polio, was dean of the JHU School of Public Health, he was high in the ranks in the H.W. Bush administration (besides being a dyed-in-the-wool liberal whose wife headed Planned Parenthood Maryland), and then got sucked back into government after 9/11 to look at bioterrorism.
While it was very fun to speak to him, it was a bit disheartening to hear how many times (as he tells it) he just stumbled, almost by luck, into positions into which he was able to effect massive benefit towards humanity.