Years before Covid, the scientist credited with eradicating smallpox warned against shutting down the world to combat an epidemic.
Illustration by Pablo Delcan for The Free Press (Image via AP)

The Prophets: D.A. Henderson

Years before Covid, the scientist credited with eradicating smallpox warned against shutting down the world to combat an epidemic.

Welcome back to The Prophets, our new Saturday series about fascinating people from the past who predicted our current moment and make our world more understandable today.

Last week, we showed how civil rights hero Bayard Rustin predicted the rise of identity politics and affirmative action—and how they would divide us today. Today, Joe Nocera spotlights D.A. Henderson, the epidemiologist who warned that pandemic lockdowns won’t stop a disease, but could instead lead to a public health disaster.

In 2006, ten years before his death at the age of 87, the legendary epidemiologist D.A. Henderson laid out a plan for how public health officials should respond to a major influenza pandemic. It was published in a small journal that focused mainly on bioterrorism—and was quickly forgotten.

As it turns out, that paper, titled “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza,” was Henderson’s prescient bequest to the future. If we had followed his advice, our country—indeed, our world—could have avoided its disastrous response to Covid. 

This month marks the four-year anniversary of lockdowns on a global scale. And though the pandemic has passed, its consequences live on. The lockdowns embraced by the U.S. public-health establishment meant that millions of young people had their education and social development disrupted, or left school for good. Mental health problems rose substantially. So did incidents of domestic violence and overdose deaths.

It didn’t have to be that way. 

Last year, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic, said at a conference, “If you’re a public health person, you have this narrow view of what the right decision is. . . . you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life. You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives [or] ruins the economy. This is a public health mindset.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president during much of the pandemic, was asked in the fall of 2022 whether he regretted his advocacy of lockdowns. He said, “Sometimes when you do draconian things, it has collateral negative consequences. . . on the economy, on the schoolchildren.” But, he added, “the only way to stop something cold in its tracks is to try and shut things down.” 

It’s no secret that Fauci’s draconian recommendations did nothing to stop the virus, nor did closing schools save children’s lives. And the idea asserted by Collins and Fauci that public health is about a single metric—stopping a disease, no matter the unintended consequences—was an inversion of the principles espoused by D.A. Henderson. 

Public health, as Henderson knew well, is very much about the entire health of society. A lifetime of watching people react to pandemics had taught him two essential things. 

First, there were limits to what can be done to stop one. As Dr. Tara O’Toole, a close colleague and one of his three co-authors on that 2006 paper told me, “D.A. kept saying, ‘You have to be practical, and you have to be humble, about what public health can actually do, especially over sustained periods. Society is complicated, and you don’t get to control it.’ ” (While the paper dealt with influenza, its lessons applied to what we faced with the novel coronavirus.) 

Second, Henderson believed in targeted protection for the ill and medically vulnerable, and that overreacting, in the form of shutting down society, would bring enormous harm that could be worse than the virus. 

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