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William C. Reeves, 87; His Research Helped Link Mosquitoes to Viral Diseases

September 23, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

William C. Reeves, a seminal figure in modern epidemiology whose work provided a basis for understanding the West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, died Sunday at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. He was 87.

Reeves died of complications from a fall, according to UC Berkeley, where he taught and conducted research for more than four decades.

The Riverside native was 25 when, in 1941, he and William M. Hammon led a research team that determined that the viruses responsible for western equine and St. Louis encephalitis came from a species of mosquito called Culex tarsalis.

The researchers provided confirmation that the two strains of encephalitis, which had plagued the Western United States during the 1930s, were transmitted by insects, a discovery that gave public health officials a crucial boost in efforts to fight the diseases.

Reeves' work gained new relevance in the late 1990s, when West Nile virus arrived in the U.S. and caused an epidemic of encephalitis in New York City.

Using techniques developed by Reeves decades earlier, researchers found that West Nile was transmitted to humans in almost the same way as western equine and St. Louis encephalitis. Reeves' field and laboratory principles helped them project the rate at which wild birds and mosquitoes could spread West Nile virus into new territory.

"The groundbreaking research that Bill and his colleagues did on the St. Louis encephalitis virus -- a close cousin to West Nile virus -- gave us a roadmap for understanding West Nile virus, helping us to predict how it would behave in North America," said Roy Campbell, chief of epidemiology in the Arboviral Diseases Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo.

Reeves trained many of the leading scientists in public health agencies, including Campbell, who oversees national surveillance of West Nile virus.

Reeves developed a love of the outdoors as a child on a Riverside farm. His father was a beekeeper who hoped his son would take over the business, but Reeves did not share his fondness for the honey-producing insects.

In junior high school, he became fascinated with butterflies and earned the nickname "Billy Bugs Reeves" because he was often spotted chasing the bugs with a net. Thanks to the encouragement of a teacher who kept butterflies as a hobby, Reeves decided to become an entomologist.

While in junior college, he talked his way into a 50-cent-per-hour job at the Citrus Experiment Station, a center for agricultural research later absorbed by UC Riverside when it was established in the 1950s.

Reeves transferred to UC Berkeley, where he earned his bachelor's degree in entomology in 1938 and his doctorate in medical entomology and parasitology in 1943. During World War II, he served as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military and investigated mosquito-borne viruses across the country and overseas, including a 1945 outbreak of Japanese B encephalitis in Okinawa. After returning to the U.S., he joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1946.

During his more than 40 years there, his posts included heading Berkeley's epidemiology program and serving as dean of its School of Public Health.

While working in Kern County in the early 1940s, he pioneered a method of detecting mosquito-borne viruses that remains central to monitoring efforts today.

He began testing chickens in Kern County in the early 1940s, when it had the highest rate of western equine and St. Louis encephalitis in the country. He discovered that chickens developed antibodies after being bitten by infected mosquitoes and did not become sick. Nor did they become active participants in the transmission cycle of the disease because they could not carry enough of the virus to spread it.

"If I wanted to find out how much virus was active in a place, I could just get in my car and drive down the alleys and pretty soon I'd see a chicken flock in a backyard," he told the Contra Costa Times in a 2002 interview.

Because domestic chickens, unlike wild birds, can be contained in one place, Reeves found that they were ideal "sentinels" of the disease: The presence of antibodies in their blood was a clear signal that infected mosquitoes were nearby.

After urbanization began to decrease the number of backyard chicken coops, Reeves set up his own sentinel flocks in key areas. Other scientists adopted his system in the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, it has been used to track the movement of West Nile virus.

The mosquito traps used today are a variation on a contraption Reeves built decades ago using carbon dioxide and light to snare the pests. He also developed a technique of marking mosquitoes with fluorescent dust that enabled researchers to study the insects' life cycles, including how far they traveled.

He discovered several species of insects during his long career, including a mosquito that a colleague initially named Culex reevisi in his honor.

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