I like to think that I have taken on some impressive projects in my time, however nothing I have done even begins to compare with the achievements of Donald Henderson. Donald was born in Lakewood, Ohio in 1928. He obtained a medical degree and choose epidemiology as his favoured direction. In 1966 the World Health Authority offered him the job of eradicating the world of the deadliest of diseases, smallpox. Known to have been around since before the pharos and responsible for between 300 and 500 million deaths in the 20th. century alone, no one truly believed that the project could ever be successful.
With too little funds and not enough vaccine of a suitable quality, Donald and his small team set out on their journey. Having to face political resistance, floods, famine and civil war there was nothing that seemed to stop them. Because they had insufficient resources to tackle the problem country by country he decided to tackle the problem by deploying a rapid response approach wherever outbreaks occurred. He and his team would go from house to house, even stop cars in the streets and vaccinate the passengers. Imagine the challenge of having to persuade people to roll up their sleeves and to inject them with, to them, an unknown substance!
On 15 August 1975, eight years into the program, Indira Gandhi and the Indian government held a party for Donald Henderson to celebrate the total eradication of smallpox from their country (one of the world’s worst affected countries). However, Donald was called away from the celebrations to urgently go to Bangladesh because a civil war had broken out and was putting his project at risk.
Just two years later and ten years in total, it was confirmed that, for the first time in history a global disease had been totally eradicated from the world.
I am led to believe that success was largely down to Donald’s incredible ability to reduce highly complex problems into simple sets of deadlines and tasks. By never admitting that anything was impossible, he motivated his team to constantly look for solutions and not for excuses. He also insisted that everyone in his team had to take turns at working on the front line, no matter their seniority. The objective was always clear and easy to see, and by motivating each country to take on the responsibility of work together with his frontline teams, the ultimate goal was achieved.
There was no Nobel prize for Donald, no global recognition but he did receive accolades and awards from some of his grateful benefactors. But that’s how it is for project managers – because ultimately that’s what he was. Donald Henderson died on August 19, 2016. I wonder where the world would be if someone else had taken on the challenge?
Have a good week,