Willy Burgdorfer, Who Found Bacteria That Cause Lyme Disease, Is Dead at 89
Excerpted from the New York Times: (11/19/2014)
Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist who in 1982 identified the cause of what had been a mysterious affliction, Lyme disease, died on Monday at a hospital in Hamilton, Mont. He was 89.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Tom Schwan, a colleague of Mr. Burgdorfer’s for many years at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton.
Lyme disease took its name from the Connecticut area where it first drew attention in the 1970s, including the towns of Lyme, Old Lyme and East Haddam. Scores of people in the area, particularly children, had developed rashes, fevers, swollen joints and sometimes more serious symptoms. Early on, it was called Lyme arthritis. It did not take long for scientists to speculate that there was a common link: blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks.
Many of the children lived and played in wooded areas and developed rashes after being bitten by deer ticks. Cases were more prevalent east of the Connecticut River, where there were more deer. Many laboratory hours were devoted to determining if the deer ticks were spreading a virus. But no virus was detected. There had to be another explanation.
Dr. Burgdorfer, who was born and educated in Basel, Switzerland, moved to Hamilton in 1951 to pursue his distinctive specialty: tick surgery, as he liked to call his meticulous method of dissecting ticks to study the diseases they spread. Hamilton, a small city in the Bitterroot Valley, had been home to a prominent laboratory for decades, after the discovery in 1906 that wood ticks in the region were transmitting Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Burgdorfer was analyzing deer ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have caused spotted fever when he stumbled on something unexpected under his microscope: spirochetes, disease-causing bacteria shaped like corkscrews. They were located in only one section of the ticks, the so-called midguts. He had studied spirochetes in graduate school.