Smallpox: An awesome story of their eradication

• A hippie doctor called Brilliant.
• What he learned in an ashram in India.
• From an ashram to combating smallpox.
• The eradication of smallpox forever.

A DOCTOR CALLED BRILLIANT. I awoke last Saturday to hear on the radio a doctor being interviewed on the New Dimensions program on NPR. He had written a memoir called “Sometimes Brilliant”, and I thought What an ego! But they explained that his last name was Brilliant, and that he had been a hippie in San Francisco. My next thought was Can anything good come out of the Haight-Asbury hippie movement? Furthermore, was I in for a surprise?

I had missed the early part of the program. But what caught my attention was Doctor Brilliant telling that 500 million people had died from smallpox during the twentieth century (that’s almost double the current population of the USA of 320 million). Smallpox was the worst disease in history. One in three who contracted smallpox died. And then I heard Dr Brilliant saying he was with the last person ever to die of smallpox…..a young girl. Now I was hooked, and what an inspirational story this turned out to be.

Some words below are excerpted from the interview by New Dimensions. The audio interview can be downloaded for the price of $1.99.

Dr Larry Brilliant (click on image to reference the source).

Larry’s story is a trip……from being a radical young hippie doctor from Detroit to being inspired by (and arrested with) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to become an activist for the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protests. He joined with friends from the Hog Farm Commune traveling by bus from London over the Khyber Pass and then found himself with his wife at the most unlikely place, Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in the Himalayas (Steve Jobs lived at this same ashram for a while).

My guru taught me a kind of yoga, which is to work in the world to help alleviate suffering without attachment either to the results or to yourself doing it. And he told me to go work in the smallpox program because he said that God would eliminate this one form of suffering, to relieve that one burden on humanity. And that my job was to try to work in my heart, inside, to rid myself of anger and hatred and become more equanimous in the process, to offer to God the work that I did and not take credit for it or make a big deal out of it.”

The guru Neem Karoli Baba (click on image to reference the source).

In India in 1974 there were 200,000 cases of smallpox. The disease existed only there plus in three countries around India. At the ashram, Dr Brilliant’s guru prophesied that smallpox would be eradicated, and he sent Dr Brilliant to WHO in Delhi to help. But Dr B turned up with a ponytail and a long beard, and was rejected. The guru persisted and kept sending him back, perhaps 10 times. Finally, WHO created for him a position as a clerk. Dr B hung around for 10 years, occasionally replacing other doctors on leave, then at 28 was pulled into the smallpox program (he was the youngest of the team by 20 years).

ONE STORY THAT WAS ASTONISHING: Dr Brilliant discovered that smallpox in India was spreading from the railway station in one large town. Two thousand cases of smallpox existed in the town when Dr B entered. The reason was one of the largest companies in Asia, a prosperous steelworks company, hired an enormous number of workers from all over India. When one of the laborers got smallpox he would go to the station to try to get home. Some would die at the station, and bodies were stacked there like cords of wood. With vultures pecking out the eyes of the corpses. This challenged Dr Brilliant’s belief in God, and he leaned on the support of the guru in the ashram.

If people infected by smallpox caught their train, the disease was spread to that area of the country, and Dr Brilliant realized this had to be stopped. He went to the home of the company CEO, Russi Mody (the head of Tata Steel, the largest company in India), and banged on his door at midnite. Modi was angry, but sat down to listen when the doctor told him his company was spreading death all over India. Although the CEO was unaware of this situation (as powerful and wealthy persons sometimes are not aware of marginalized populations), he got on board and assisted Dr Brilliant in efforts to help sick workers (they quarantined the city). They stopped mining coal, and stopped exporting steel for six weeks to address the problem. Dr B was able to get the train service stopped.

BROUHAHA WITH PRIME MINISTER GANDHI. When the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, heard about the disruption to the train service, she sent an edict to expel Dr Brilliant from India. The commissioner for health, Dr M.I.D. Sharma, intervened and asked for a delay of three days. When Gandhi asked why, Dr Sharma said he needed three days to adopt Dr Brilliant as his son so he wouldn’t be expelled. This turned the tide, and Dr Brilliant was allowed to stay. Forever after, Dr Sharma called Dr Brilliant by the name of Sonny. The WHO program changed because of this encounter with the prime minister.

In India in 1974 there were 200,000 cases of smallpox. A Russian professor came to the UN and proposed to eradicate the disease. However, the first few years of Dr Brilliant’s involvement were very difficult, because India suppressed smallpox cases even though a vaccine was available. It took several years, but WHO located every single case in India. After the last case, a young girl, the team knew they had eradicated smallpox (meaning it will never come back again). But they kept looking for two more years just to be sure. Smallpox was the first disease to ever be eradicated. The disease killed 500 million in the last century. Further back in history, Ramses the fifth had it 3,000 years ago in Egypt.

BIO FOR LARRY BRILLIANT, M.D. He is a pioneering physician, visionary technologist, and global philanthropist. Dr. Brilliant was the first executive director of, and he currently serves as chair of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Also, he co-founded the Seva Foundation, whose programs and partners have restored sight to more than four million blind people in dozens of countries (for free). The Grateful Dead gave 15-20 concerts to raise money for Seva.

Larry Brilliant is the author of the memoir: Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History (HarperOne 2016).
To learn more about the work of Larry Brilliant go to

Click on image to locate book on Amazon.

TAKEAWAY. At the behest of his Indian guru, Larry was inspired to join the World Health Organization to launch a program to eradicate smallpox in India. And this story of smallpox eradication is but one proof that something can be done, that little by little we can make this planet a place with less suffering.

This story reminds me of the balance between spiritual self-study and service to help others in the world. Although the life of Jesus is an excellent example, my concern is that some followers spend more time studying and less time helping, especially helping the marginalized of society and people who don’t look like themselves and. The danger is that faith can become clubbish and introverted.

A second takeaway is the humility taught to Dr Brilliant in the ashram, as in his own words:
….to offer to God the work that I did and not take credit for it or make a big deal out of it.
Humility and service, although they seem to be in short supply these days, represent mature spirituality.

Finally, Dr Brilliant is an optimist because he saw smallpox eradicated. But he says it happened only because people were united in the quest. We need public will, he says, which they had in the challenge to eradicate smallpox. It was a team of multi-national persons, united. As an add-on, Dr B believes global warming is solvable, but we have to come together first.

Feel free to share this article with someone who might be interested in this story. Just click on one of the “share boxes” at the top right of the page. Or share on Facebook if that’s where you receive this blog. Or just tell ‘em to go to

Your comment in the Comment box below is always valued.

The Gray Nomad
Helping someone to hope.

Whenever you give to the poor, do not blow a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do that they may be recognized and praised by men. Truly I tell you they have their reward – in full already. But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

[Book of Matthew, chapter 6].

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Trevor Pillar
Trevor Pillar
7 years ago

Ian, thank you. Brilliant article about a brilliant humble servant. Have just shared it with my family.
Best Wishes.

Don Minton
Don Minton
7 years ago

This is a wonderful account of how God works to help His children here on earth. I believe He uses whomever and whatever means available to relieve suffering and promote the welfare of all things living. We must remember, He uses us human beings to do His Work. We are His hands. Just because a person is not a card carrying Christian, does not mean that the Holy Spirit can not influence her or him. If that were so the world would indeed be very much less better off today, and throughout history. Good things come form one source, and God loves all of us equally. I know there is much more to be said regarding many points of truth etc; however I am thankful for people such as the Doctor in this blog. Thanks Ian for bring our attention to our need to serve one another, in small simple ways, and in extraordinary ways also. After all it is all service, and it all makes a difference.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x