The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J. Michael Lane, epidemiologist who helped conquer smallpox, dies at 84

J. Michael Lane, left, in Niger in 1968, traveled around the world in the campaign to eradicate smallpox. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

J. Michael Lane, an epidemiologist who helped see to its end the global campaign to eradicate smallpox, a disease that killed hundreds of millions of people over centuries before it was vanquished in one of the most celebrated feats in the history of medicine, died Oct. 21 at his home in Atlanta. He was 84.

The cause was colon cancer, said his wife, Lila Summer Lane.

Dr. Lane, the last director of the smallpox eradication bureau at what is now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, was one of the “disease detectives” who stalked the smallpox virus around the globe until the last naturally occurring case was identified in Somalia in 1977. Never before or since has a human infectious disease been eradicated through medical intervention.

Caused by the variola virus, smallpox had existed at least since the time of the Egyptian pharoahs and killed roughly a third of its victims, blinding or scarring many more with its signature rash of pustules.

The first major advance in combating smallpox came in the late 1700s, when an English physician, Edward Jenner, discovered it was possible to produce immunity to smallpox by intentionally exposing a patient to cowpox, a related but less virulent virus. He is considered the father of the smallpox vaccine.

Jenner’s relatively crude methods were improved over the years, and the smallpox vaccine, where it was widely available, proved spectacularly effective. The United States experienced its last smallpox outbreak in 1949. But the virus continued to rage in other parts of the world, particularly Africa and Asia.

Dr. Lane joined the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service in 1963 and was one of several epidemiologists — “young and naive and ambitious and optimistic,” he said years later — who were credited with bringing about the disease’s final defeat. They included D.A. Henderson, a CDC colleague who led the World Health Organization’s smallpox initiative in the 1960s and 1970s, and William H. Foege, Dr. Lane’s predecessor at the CDC’s smallpox eradication bureau. (Dr. Lane led the unit from 1973 to 1979.)

D.A. Henderson, ‘disease detective’ who eradicated smallpox, dies at 87

Foege was credited with persuading epidemiologists to abandon mass vaccination and instead employ a method known as ring vaccination, in which tracers assiduously target known and likely contacts of every infected patient. Using that strategy, Dr. Lane traveled to outbreak sites around the world, coordinating with local leaders and overseeing operations until each flare-up was extinguished.

The eradication campaign depended on the efforts of legions of volunteers who learned to administer the vaccine using a simple bifurcated needle. Volunteers required an hour or less of training and could deliver vaccines to as many as 500 people per day, according to the WHO.

They did not use personal protective equipment, Dr. Lane recalled in a 2017 interview with Raina MacIntyre, an Australian epidemiologist and expert in bio­terrorism who is currently engaged in research on the novel coronavirus.

“We believed in vaccination,” he said. “No one went into the field unless they had a recent strong reaction (or ‘take’) to vaccination. I remember when I went to Yugoslavia the physicians there were amazed that I would go in to examine patients without a mask, gloves, or indeed anything. Vaccination works!”

(Yugoslavia, specifically the province of Kosovo, was the site of a smallpox outbreak in 1972 after a Muslim man contracted the disease during a pilgrimage to Iraq. When the outbreak was detected, 18 million people were vaccinated in 10 days.)

In the effort to combat an infectious disease, Dr. Lane stressed the importance of cooperating with tribal, village and religious leaders, rather than dictating to them from on high. “If they are on board they will make things easy,” he told MacIntyre.

As smallpox entered its final throes, epidemiologists offered increasingly generous financial rewards for reports of verified cases. Speaking with MacIntyre years later, Dr. Lane recalled the armed guards placed outside the homes of infected patients as an outbreak was put down in Bangladesh.

In 1980, the WHO declared that “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.”

John Michael Lane was born in Boston on Feb. 14, 1936. His mother, Eileen O’Connor, gave him the surname Lane before marrying his father, Alfred Baker Lewis.

Dr. Lane and his siblings grew up in an environment of intellectual and social engagement. Both parents were socialists. His mother was active with organizations including Planned Parenthood. His father, a lawyer from an affluent family, volunteered his services to the NAACP and became treasurer of its national organization. During World War II, according to Dr. Lane’s wife, they sponsored German refugees, Jewish and otherwise.

Dr. Lane received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1957, a medical degree from Harvard University in 1961 and a master of public health degree in epidemiology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, his wife said.

In 1969, Dr. Lane recommended U.S. children no longer be routinely vaccinated against smallpox because the risks associated with the vaccine, however small, outweighed the benefits in a country where the risk of a smallpox outbreak was apparently “negligible.” Routine smallpox vaccination for children ended in the United States in 1972.

Dr. Lane retired from the CDC in 1987 but remained active in epidemiology until nearly the end of his life, teaching at Emory University in Atlanta and acting as a consultant to the CDC, the WHO and other entities on smallpox and the threat it might pose if the virus was used as a weapon of bioterrorism.

He strongly advocated the destruction of the smallpox samples that remain in laboratories in the United States and Russia, telling the New York Times in 1979, “I’m not sure I see the theoretical benefits of keeping this little lump of genetic material available forever.”

Dr. Lane’s marriage to Carolina Hernandez ended in divorce. Besides his wife of 22 years, of Atlanta, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Cynthia Edward of Mount Pleasant, S.C.; a stepdaughter, Annabel Moore of Vancouver, B.C.; a brother; a half brother; two half sisters; and two grandchildren.

In December, MacIntyre organized a smallpox pandemic simulation in the United States with more than 200 experts and government officials. They confronted “issues such as travel bans, infected ships and mass transport vehicles, contact tracing, testing, vaccination, law and order and critical infrastructure,” she wrote in an email. “We even looked at the political impact of the 2020 election in the [United States] on pandemic control.”

Dr. Lane, suffering at the time from cancer, participated in the conference.

“To have Mike’s expertise in the room was a privilege and one which enabled his vast knowledge to be shared with people involved in the covid-19 response today,” MacIntyre wrote. “Many have since contacted me to let me know how it informed their response to the current pandemic.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries