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OBITUARIES / Terry L. Yates, 1950 - 2007

Biologist traced the source of hantavirus to deer mice

December 24, 2007|Matt Schudel | Washington Post

Terry L. Yates, a biologist who discovered the source of the deadly hantavirus in the Southwest United States and who held several leadership positions with the National Science Foundation in Washington, has died. He was 57.

Yates, who was also a University of New Mexico vice president, died Dec. 11 of brain cancer at the university's Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque.

In the spring of 1993, many people in the Four Corners region -- where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet -- were stricken with a mysterious illness.

The virus, which killed 32 people in a matter of weeks, was originally called "Sin Nombre," after a canyon in New Mexico where Spanish settlers had massacred Indian inhabitants.

Yates, a biologist whose specialty was rodents and small mammals, was part of an interdisciplinary research team that set out to find the cause. Using animal specimens he had collected over the years throughout the Southwest, Yates, with research partner Robert Parmenter, isolated the source of what came to be known as the hantavirus.

The virus was carried by deer mice, which were in abundance at that time because of unusually wet weather in the area. Medical authorities have not been able to eliminate the hantavirus -- which has killed more than 125 people in the United States in the last 15 years -- but by learning how it is transmitted, they have greatly reduced its lethal effect.

The National Science Foundation named Yates' discovery one of the 50 projects funded by the foundation with the greatest effect on people's lives in the United States.

More recently, Yates had been studying the connection between changing weather patterns and deer mice populations, work that allowed state health officials to warn New Mexico residents about increased risks of the hantavirus.

"Terry was a guy who saw the linkages in natural history between species and big environmental changes, including human health," said David Schmidly, president of the University of New Mexico and Yates' master's degree supervisor at Texas A&M University in the 1970s. "He was very creative, a big-picture thinker."

In 1990-92 and 2000-01, Yates directed the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology in Washington. Since last year, he had been a member of the board on life sciences of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. He also worked on a fiber-optic cable network and a national biodiversity research project.

Terry Lamon Yates was born March 17, 1950, in Mayfield, Ky., and graduated from Kentucky's Murray State University. He received his master's in biology from Texas A&M in 1975 and doctorate in biology from Texas Tech University in 1978.

For the last 29 years, he was affiliated with the University of New Mexico, where he had been a professor of biology and pathology and vice president for research and economic development.

He published more than 125 scientific papers and directed 17 doctoral dissertations at the university. He was a curator and former director of the university's Museum of Southwestern Biology and helped create a remote ecological research site near Socorro, N.M.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Nancy F. Yates of Placitas, N.M.; and two sons, Brian Yates of San Diego and Michael Yates of Albuquerque.

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