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Future Of Life Award 2020

In 1979, smallpox was eradicated. As a result, millions of lives were protected from this preventable disease. The 2020 Future of Life Award celebrates two of the heroes who made it happen.
November 16, 2020
Viktor Zhdanov and William Foege
Contributing to the eradication of the smallpox virus


Celebrating the contributions of Viktor Zhdanov and William Foege

Read the press release in Russian

Imagine how you’d react to the headline “Mutated coronavirus discovered, killing 30% of those infected.” Smallpox was such a lethal virus, estimated to have killed 500 million people in its last century. Today, the 41st anniversary of its eradication is celebrated by honoring two of the heroes who made it happen: Dr. William Foege and Dr. Viktor Zhdanov will share the $100,000 Future of Life Award in an online ceremony including Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci and freshly minted Nobel Laureate Dr. Jennifer Doudna.

Viktor Zhdanov
William Foege

The lessons learned from defeating smallpox are highly relevant to the covid pandemic: “We’re all indebted to Bill Foege and Viktor Zhdanov for their critical contributions to the eradication of smallpox, which demonstrated the immense value of science and international collaboration for fighting disease”, said António Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations. “Bill Foege’s advocacy of surveillance and containment (applying water to the house on fire rather than the whole neighborhood) was very significant for the overall success”, said Harvard professor George Church. “Bill played a pivotal role in eradicating smallpox and deserves the Future of Life Award. I look forward to seeing what the next generation of public health students will accomplish—by following in this giant’s footsteps”,  said Bill Gates. 

Viktor Zhdanov has been called “the best person who ever lived” by Oxford professor Will MacAskill, for successfully persuading the World Health Assembly to initiate an eradication campaign where the USA and the Soviet Union collaborated despite the Cold War. Dr. MacAskill added: “Smallpox was one of the worst diseases to ever befall the human race, and its eradication is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. Bill Foege and Viktor Zhdanov should be celebrated for their contributions, and should inspire us today to take effective action to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.” “They are phenomenal examples of what it means to harness science for global health”, Bill Gates added.

UNICEF estimates that smallpox eradication has saved close to 200 million lives – so far. “In selecting Bill Foege and Viktor Zhdanov as recipients of its prestigious 2020 award, the Future of Life Institute reminds us that seemingly impossible problems can be solved when science is respected, international collaboration is fostered, and goals are boldly defined. As we celebrate this achievement quarantined in our homes and masked outdoors, what message could be more obvious or more audacious?”, said Dr. Rachel Bronson, President & CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. George Church gives examples of such seemingly impossible problems: “Smallpox eradication is a model for elimination of other human-specific diseases in the future, such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella and syphilis.” 

While serving as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister of Health, Dr. Viktor Zhdanov persuasively argued at the Eleventh World Health Assembly meeting in 1958 that the world could eradicate smallpox within a decade with a united effort, and successfully lobbied the Soviet Union to donate 25 million doses of the smallpox vaccine to kickstart the effort in developing countries. The World Health Assembly accepted his proposal in 1959 under Resolution WHA11.54. Viktor Zhdanov passed away in 1987, and his award will be received by his sons Viktor and Michael in his memory. 

While working for the Centers for Disease Control in Africa as Chief of the Smallpox Eradication Program, Dr. Bill Foege developed the highly successful surveillance and “ring vaccination” strategy to contain smallpox spread. This greatly reduced the number of vaccinations needed, ensuring that the limited resources available sufficed to make smallpox the first infectious disease to be eradicated in human history. 

About the Future of Life Award

The award: The Future of Life Award honors those who take exceptional measures to safeguard the collective future of humanity. The 2017 award honored Vasili Arkhipov for single-handedly preventing a Soviet nuclear attack against the US in 1962, and the 2018 award celebrated Stanislav Petrov for helping avert an accidental nuclear war in 1983. The 2019 award honored Dr. Matthew Meselson for his remarkable contributions to getting biological weapons banned and focusing biology on curing rather than killing. The award is funded by Skype-cofounder Jaan Tallinn and presented by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a non-profit organization advocating positive technology use. “By eradicating smallpox and banning bioweapons, biology is a role model for other sciences struggling to help and not harm”, said FLI president  Max Tegmark. This dual nature of science was echoed by MIT biology Professor Jonathan King: “The victory over smallpox highlights both the power of science to help humanity, and also how science could do more good if we didn’t divert vast resources to developing new weapons of mass destruction. We need the world’s scientific community to draw inspiration from Foege and Zhdanov and press our political leaders to fund healthcare, not warfare.”

FLI’s Dr. Emilia Javorsky, a biotech entrepreneur, added: “As we embark on our journey to eradicate COVID in an environment plagued by mistrust and misinformation, Foege and Zhdanov have shown us that the seemingly impossible is possible. Their example illustrates the importance of rebuilding and restoring trust in science, between nations, and perhaps most powerfully, between each other.”

Videos about the award

On social media

What did people have to say about the 2020 Future of Life Award?

In the media

In Conversation with the Award Recipients

We recorded an episode of the Future of Life Institute Podcast with the award winners. Listen to it here:

Featured Books

Viktor Zhdanov—my Husband, Elena Tatulova’s Diary

Viktor Zhdanov’s wife (under the pseudonym of Elena) wrote a book about her husband’s life that the team at FLI has translated into English. It includes many fictitious names but tells a real story, and gives a taste of who Viktor Zhdanov was like as a person, while diving deeper into his work. You can read it here.

House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox by William Foege

A story of courage and risk-taking, House on Fire tells how smallpox, a disease that killed, blinded, and scarred millions over centuries of human history, was completely eradicated in a spectacular triumph of medicine and public health. Part autobiography, part mystery, the story is told by a man who was one of the architects of a radical vaccination scheme that became a key strategy in ending the horrible disease when it was finally contained in India. You can find the book on Amazon here.

Make a Nomination

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If you want to nominate someone for the Future of Life Award, please use the link below to access the registration page. Once registered, you will be able to submit your nomination with supporting links and documentation.

If we decide to give the award to your nominee, you will receive a $3,000 prize from FLI for your contribution.

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Media mentions
The Future of Life Award in the press:

Awards from other years

Here are some of the other awards we have given in other years:

Future Of Life Award 2023

With the 2023 Future of Life Award, we celebrate two films – both released amidst the cold war – that were profoundly impactful in reducing the threat of nuclear war, and the five storytellers behind them.
Nicholas Meyer, Edward Hume, Brandon Stoddard, Walter F. Parkes, and Lawrence Lasker
For reducing the risk of nuclear war through the power of storytelling

Future Of Life Award 2022

We presented the 2022 Future of Life Award to eight individuals for their roles in discovering and popularising nuclear winter. The award ceremony took place against the backdrop of a review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Jeannie Peterson, Paul Crutzen, John Birks, Richard Turco, Brian Toon, Carl Sagan, Georgiy Stenchikov, and Alan Robock
Reducing the risk of nuclear war by developing and popularizing the science of nuclear winter

Future Of Life Award 2021

The 2021 Future of Life Award goes to three remarkable individuals for their critical contributions to the most successful international environmental treaty to date – the Montreal Protocol. Their work helped to avert a climate catastrophe that could have ended agriculture worldwide.
Joseph Farman, Susan Solomon, Stephen Andersen
Protecting the ozone layer

Future Of Life Award 2019

The Biological Weapons Convention is an international ban that has prevented one of the most inhumane forms of warfare known to humanity. On the eve of the Convention’s 47th anniversary, we presented the 2019 Future of Life Award to one of it's forefathers.
Matthew Meselson
Campaigning for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention

Future Of Life Award 2018

The 2018 Future of Life Award celebrates a relatively unknown individual whose courageous judgement may have prevented a nuclear strike during the Cold War that could easily have escalated into a full-scale nuclear conflict.
Stanislav Petrov
Averting nuclear war by overriding Soviet early-warning detection system

Future Of Life Award 2017

In 1962, a soft-spoken naval officer, made a brave decision in the face of danger that prevented a nuclear strike. We presented his family with the inaugural 2017 Future of Life Award to honor the late hero.
Vasili Arkhipov
Averting nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis

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