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Henderson Awarded Nation’s Highest Civilian Honor

By Brian W. Simpson

The guest list was the sort that only a president could draw up: comedian Bill Cosby, former first lady Nancy Reagan, home run king Hank Aaron, television’s “Mister Rogers”—Fred Rogers himself—and D.A. Henderson, former dean of the School and the man who led the successful World Health Organization effort to eradicate smallpox.

Henderson and the elite, eclectic group were honored July 9 as Presidential Medal of Freedom winners during a White House ceremony.

“D.A. Henderson is a great general in mankind’s war against disease,” said President George W. Bush, lauding Henderson’s efforts to subdue smallpox and his recent work against bioterrorism. “Our nation is fortunate to be able to draw on D.A. Henderson’s great store of wisdom and experience as we work to lift the dark threat of terrorism from the nation and our world.”

In selecting Henderson for the nation’s highest civilian honor, Bush was recognizing one of his own employees. Henderson, MD, MPH ’60, is principal science advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. 

“To be selected to receive from the President the nation’s highest honor is an exceptional distinction quite beyond any other recognition I have received, or could ever hope to receive,” said Henderson, 74. “At the same time, I can’t help but reflect on what actually is being recognized. Certainly, it is not the work of one person but, rather, achievements in public health and the contributions of so many friends and colleagues who have worked so tirelessly and with a degree of dedication that has been an inspiration to me.”

The July awards ceremony was Henderson’s second trip to the East Room of the White House to be honored. Henderson, the School’s dean from 1977 to 1990, received the National Medal of Science in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan.