Michael O’Donnell, former prevaricator-in-chief of the wellness industry trade magazine and best known proposing that employees be charged for insurance by the pound, once claimed that “pry, poke and prod” programs were as important to public health as antibiotics and sanitation.
You can debate that premise (or, more likely, laugh at that premise) all you want, but there is no debate about the #1 public health victory of all time: the conquest of smallpox.
Smallpox likely disabled or disfigured a billion people and killed hundreds of millions (including most of the native population of the New World).
Until it didn’t.
The man most responsible for the conquest of smallpox, Dr. J. Michael Lane, died yesterday at 84. He spent much of his lengthy CDC career on this quest, taking him all over the world. And, as you can seee below, I do mean literally all over the world.
He also happened to be my uncle.
What this lengthy New York Times obituary — recounting the history of smallpox, among other things — doesn’t mention is that he was also the nicest guy in the world. His modesty, apparently a recessive gene in my family, became him. He opened his keynote at the 25th reunion of his Harvard Medical School class by saying: “I’m the lowest-paid guy in the room.”
This will shock everybody but he also hated corporate wellness. He and I used to get a chuckle out of the hilarious chronic-disease statistics that his very own CDC published, like their “arresting fact” that 7 out of 10 deaths in the US are due to chronic disease. Not sure what else the CDC would like people to die of, but Mike observed: “Most countries I visit are lucky if it’s 2 out of 10.”
The CDC is quite controversial now, but this victory shows that when they put their mind to it, they can accomplish great things, this being perhaps the greatest of all.