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Washington’s Own Dr. Bill Foege, Slayer of Smallpox, Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

On May 29, President Obama honored Washington’s own Dr. Bill Foege with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his leadership of the campaign that successfully eliminated smallpox, the first and only human disease ever to be completely eradicated.

Born in 1936, the 6’7″ Dr. Foege (pronounced Fay-ghee) graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, attended the University of Washington Medical School, and interned for Public Health Seattle-King County. When he became a global health expert for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the 1960s, smallpox was killing 2 million people every year and infecting 50 million more. After earning an MPH from Harvard in 1965, he worked with missionary groups in Nigeria to transform their approach from hospital-based medicine to community-based medicine. Vaccine shortages and mass vaccination’s poor record led Foege and other CDC scientists in Africa to pioneer, largely on their own initiative, the “survey and containment” method of stockpiling vaccine reserves and mass vaccinating only people from areas with recorded smallpox cases. The implementation demanded ingenuity from local people and scientists alike. In one afflicted Nigerian village, Foege vaccinated 2,000 people in a single day. When he asked the chief how he had gotten so many people to come, the chief explained, “I told everyone to come and see the tallest man in the world.” As Foege recounts in his 2011 memoir House on Fire, he would explain to people that “if a house is on fire, no one wastes time putting water on nearby houses just in case the fire spreads. They rush to pour water where it will do the most good: on the burning house.” When it saw the effectiveness of the “survey and containment” strategy, the CDC adopted it as its smallpox strategy with remarkable speed for a bureaucracy. “It shows the value of having young people involved in the project,” says Foege. “Julius Richmond, the former Surgeon General, once said that the reason smallpox eradication worked is that the people involved were so young they didn’t know it couldn’t work.” In 1967, Foege joined the World Health Organization’s newly-launched campaign to eradicate smallpox through mass vaccinations. Under Foege’s leadership, the WHO smallpox program quickly adopted the “survey and containment” strategy. By the mid-1970s, the disease had been effectively eradicated. On May 8, 1980, the WHO formally certified smallpox as the first major epidemic human disease to ever be eradicated.

Dr. Foege served as Director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta from 1977-1983. He also co-founded the Task Force for Global Health and took up teaching at Emory University. As Executive Director of the Carter Center from 1986-1992, he led the international campaign to eliminate Guinea Worm and other diseases by pioneering new models of partnership between global health groups and pharmaceutical companies. He also served on the board of Pacific Lutheran University and played a crucial role in establishing the Global Health Program of Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he still serves as a Senior Fellow.

Billy Woodward, author of www.scienceheroes.com and Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the 20th Century, calculates that Foege’s breakthroughs have saved the lives of 122 million people so far. Journalist Tom Paulson of KPLU 88.5 and the Humanosphere blog calls Foege “the most influential person in global health.” Yet Foege remains profoundly modest, self-effacing, and determined to share credit with others. When he told his CDC boss David Sencer that he was coming home from India, Sencer said, “No, you’re not. In a few months, you will have eradicated the last remaining cases of smallpox, the holy grail of global health.” Foege was adamant. “If I’m here, all the credit will go to the foreign people and this is something that the Indian people deserve credit for.

Foege is a passionate teacher who considers the present day to be the most exciting and promising time in the history of global health. A pious man whose uncle’s missionary work inspired him to enter the global health sector, he tells his students, “Love science but don’t worship it. There’s something better than science, and that is serving humanity.” He says global health practicitioners should understand and respect the cultures of those they seek to help and to look for inspiration everywhere. “I tell students they should be generalists and specialists simultaneously. Generalists try to figure out how the world works…and then follow some passion [as a specialist], but then you know how that passion fits into the general picture. And there are so many things to be done that you really can follow your passion and improve the world.”