His actions alone saved millions of lives.
In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Smallpox had been eradicated and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Smallpox was a deadly and highly contagious disease, killing three out of every ten people that contracted it. In the 20th century alone, it is estimated that Smallpox killed between 300–500 million people and disfigured countless others.
The first Smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. Such was the significance of this achievement that Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, wrote the following in a letter to Jenner:
Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility … You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest … Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated. ~Thomas Jefferson, 1806
Unfortunately, it would take nearly 200 years to completely eradicate the disease. There are many reasons for this, but a primary reason is likely that no one imagined it was even possible. Smallpox is the only human disease to have ever been completely eradicated.
In his book, Doing Good Better, William MacAskill estimates that the global eradication of Smallpox has saved 120 million lives. Who can we say is responsible for this amazing achievement?
Answering this question is more difficult than you might think. How do you attribute positive outcomes to one person when those outcomes are usually caused by the collective action of many people?
According to MacAskill, a key component is to ask, what would have happened otherwise?
This straightforward but surprisingly difficult-to-answer question is often overlooked when thinking about the good we do. But it matters. Because, ultimately, what we individually contribute to the good of any outcome is the difference we make. And when we don’t take this into account, we fail to attribute positive outcomes to the right people.
What matters is the difference we make
Imagine that I led the team that produced the first vaccine for COVID-19. The world would sing my praises. But, would it be deserved?
You might wonder, if someone else had led that team, would a vaccine have been developed, anyway?
Or, if my team hadn’t developed the vaccine, how long would it have taken for another team to develop a vaccine?
These are important questions because they drastically change our perspective toward the people we’re praising. If we don’t ask these questions, if we don’t figure out the difference people make, we end up praising people for outcomes that would have happened without them.
The greatest hero of all time
History will tell you that D.A. Henderson, the leader of the WHO’s Smallpox eradication program, is responsible for ridding the world of Smallpox. He received countless awards and accolades for this achievement. He was even knighted by the King of Thailand! But, it is now known that initially Henderson didn’t even want the job and took it as a means to advance his career. That’s not to say he didn’t care, but it does mean he took the reigns of a process that had been set in motion years before. If he hadn’t taken this role, someone else would have been hired and Smallpox likely would have been eradicated, eventually. Therefore, the difference Henderson made is probably much smaller than history suggests it is.
Is there someone who made a more significant contribution to the eradication of this deadly disease than Henderson?
In the mid-1950s, the World Health Assembly concluded that the complete eradication of Smallpox was unrealistic — no disease had ever been eradicated worldwide. Thus, the Assembly recommended that each nation continue to combat the disease as it saw fit.
Then, in 1958, Professor Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health of the USSR, gave an impassioned speech on the worldwide eradication of Smallpox at the Eleventh World Health Assembly. He reminded the Assembly that Smallpox was a problem for all countries, not just the countries in which it was prevalent. Further, based on his experience and research in the USSR, he made the case that Smallpox could be eradicated within 10 years.
Zhdanov successfully persuaded the Assembly to change its mind. And, in 1959, the Smallpox eradication program officially began.
What makes Zhdanov’s contribution to the elimination of Smallpox so important is that if he hadn’t given that speech, if he hadn’t changed the minds of the delegates, the program to eradicate Smallpox would never have come into being — at least, not in the form we know of today.
So, of the 120 million lives saved by the eradication of Smallpox, how many can we attribute to Zhdanov directly?
According to MacAskill, it wouldn’t be correct to attribute all these lives saved to Zhdanov because Smallpox would have been eventually eradicated, anyway. But, if Zhdanov moved the eradication forward just 10 years, as MacAskill estimates he did, that would mean Zhdanov would be directly responsible for saving 10–20 million lives.
I’d say that qualifies him as one of the greatest heroes of all time!
Thanks for reading!
The thoughts presented here were highly influenced by William MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better.