Until 2010, Viktor Zhdanov, didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. No big deal, you say, unless you realize Viktor Zhdanov was the single most important person of the last millennium. A bold claim, and one which I will attempt to substantiate. No angel, he was involved in the Soviet Union’s biological warfare program, but the good he has done is incalculable.
I’ve been looking into who was responsible for the greatest good over the last millennium and how that achievement has been recognized.
There can be little debate that the eradication of smallpox stands out as humanity’s greatest achievement of the last millennium. In the twentieth century alone, smallpox is estimated to have killed 300m-500m, not to mention causing a countless amount of human disfigurement. And that is just for the twentieth century, and with the effects of smallpox’s eradication factored in. If smallpox had not been eradicated, the twentieth century death toll would have been far higher. Wars pale by comparison, World War II for instance, by far the largest war, is estimated at most to have resulted in 78m deaths.
So who is responsible for this outstanding achievement? Society and the conventional literature places the credit and the numerous awards and rewards with D.A. Henderson. This conventional analysis is wrong, or at least too simplistic. D.A. Henderson was in charge of the WHO smallpox eradication program, but he was acting as an agent. It was a job. A job that at least initially he didn’t even want, but was told it was the only way he could get a promotion. Had he not taken the job someone else would have filled it, and smallpox would still have likely been eradicated.
So who was really should take the credit for the elimination of smallpox? The credit really lies with whoever was responsible for the creation of the smallpox eradication position that D.A. Henderson filled and determined what D.A. Henderson’s work should be. And that, as best as I can determine, was one man, Viktor Zhdanov. He proposed and convinced the World Health Assembly to adopt a program to eradicate smallpox.
This might not seem like a great achievement now, but at the time it was. At the time no disease had ever been eradicated before, and people argued that doing so was therefore impossible. How could man eradicate disease? How could the bureaucratic problems of coordinating the actions of 100 or more countries in the world be overcome?
So contentious was the issue that Viktor Zhdanov’s proposal to eradicate smallpox was ultimately passed by the World Health Assembly by a mere two votes. Had Viktor Zhdanov not put forth and lobbied for his proposal, smallpox would not have been eradicated. And yet Viktor Zhdanov amounts to nothing more than a footnote in the history of the eradication of the disease.
Whether Viktor Zhdanov was truly responsible for the eradication of smallpox isn’t certain. Perhaps part of the responsibility lies with a subordinate who proposed the plan to him, or with Viktor Zhdanov’s elementary school teacher for getting Viktor interested in science. It seems though that in making his proposal he was acting as a principal or free agent, and as such a large part of the responsibility for the eradication of smallpox belongs to him.
The lesson of Viktor Zhdanov is clear: to truly make a difference it is important to act as a principal, but don’t be surprised if you die unrecognized, and all of the credit accrues to those acting as your agents.
The post above originally appeared on Gordon Irlam’s website.