Dr. William Carlisle Reeves (born 1916)

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William C. Reeves

Professor of Epidemiology, Emeritus



William Carlisle Reeves died of a cerebral hemorrhage, subsequent to a fall, on September 19, 2004. He was 87 years old. Though officially retired in 1987 from the University of California, Berkeley, he continued to serve actively until shortly before his death: advising students, presenting occasional lectures and seminars, participating in research, and consulting with federal state and local public health agencies. He vigorously took part in a departmental faculty meeting on the day of his fall, just four days before his death. Reeves’ former student, now chief of epidemiology at the Arbovirus Disease Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Roy Campbell, described him as, “…a giant in the field of arbovirology. When he talks, people listen”. Indeed, Bill Reeves was the preeminent pioneer and expert on the causes and transmission of mosquito-borne viral encephalitides in the world. In fact, he invented the term arbovirus to describe these arthropod-borne (transmitted) diseases.

Reeves grew up on a ranch outside Riverside, California, the only child of William Claude Reeves and Abie Bessie Harriet Brant. His father kept bees, but Bill did not attribute his lifelong interest in “bugs” to his father’s vocation. In fact, he seems to have had an aversion to bees. However, he did get his lifelong interest in fishing and hunting from his father, who took him on month-long trips into the California mountains after the “honey harvest” was over in late summer. His interest in entomology was encouraged and guided by his junior high school biology teacher. His friends and schoolmates dubbed him “Billy Bugs,” an appellation he seems to have savored. Although neither of his parents had been educated beyond grammar school, they were determined that their son would get a college education.

Reeves began his college career at Riverside Junior College. More importantly, during two summers he worked at the Citrus Experiment Station of the Riverside campus of the University of California. There he came in contact with dedicated research scientists and graduate students from the University of California, Los Angeles. So, after completing the junior college program at Riverside, he moved on to Berkeley, which had the best undergraduate and graduate program in entomology in the west. In a bizarre incident when Reeves was well into his thesis research on the treehole mosquito, investigators in another institution learned about a key finding by Reeves. When they incorporated this information into their research, it led to prior publication by them. Reeves was, therefore, forced to begin his research again, and building on his previous work, he moved his project to the Hooper Foundation at the University of California, San Francisco. There he came under the tutelage and direction of the world-renowned virologist K. F. Meyer and there also he began his collaboration with virologist/epidemiologist William M. Hammon. When an epidemic of Western Equine (WEE) and St. Louis Virus (SLE) encephalitis occurred in Yakima County, Washington in 1941, Meyer dispatched a team under Hammon’s direction to investigate. Reeves played a major role in the investigation that resulted in the first isolation of viruses (WEE and SLE) from naturally infected mosquitoes (Culex tarsalis). The resulting publications and Reeves’s thesis are classics. With these accomplishments, at age 26, Reeves’s career was launched.

Reeves got his master of public health (M.P.H.) degree from the School of Public Health at Berkeley in 1949. He was one of the first graduates from the newly established school, a school which was created due to the efforts of people like K. F. Meyer and William M. Harmon. Even while pursuing the M.P.H., Reeves was lecturing on epidemiology. He was, in large part, responsible for the growth and development of the epidemiology program at Berkeley, now one of the preeminent academic epidemiology programs in the country.

Bill Reeves’s scientific accomplishments were substantial. He identified several previously unidentified viral agents of disease and new species of arthropod vectors. His research was always “goal oriented”. That is, he was concerned with the potential his findings would have with regard to disease prevention. And, though his investigations took him as far afield as Guam and the Murray Valley in Australia, his focus was always on the Central Valley of California. Nor was his research ever “esoteric”. He was always sensitive to practical issues of methodology. Thus, he devised the first mosquito “live trap”, invented a tracking method by marking mosquitoes with a fluorescent dye, and innovated the “sentinel chicken” monitoring system that has become a prime component of arbovirus surveillance worldwide.

Reeves was active in all the relevant professional organizations, governmental and nongovernmental. He received many prestigious awards, among them the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award, the Berkeley Citation, the John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association, a U.S. Army Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service, and the Walter Reed Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

He was an outstanding teacher both in the classroom and as an advisor of students engaged in doctoral research. Bill was a tough taskmaster, concerned with the smallest details, but stimulating and sensitive. He chose his doctoral students carefully and many now hold important positions in academia and governmental agencies around the world. He served on Berkeley’s Graduate Council and as dean of the School of Public Health from 1967 until 1972.

With the appearance of West Nile Virus encephalitis in 1999, Reeves resumed an active role in planning research and control strategies for the disease, even though he had retired in 1987. He served as a member of the California West Nile Virus Steering Committee and as a participant in the CDC’s weekly “conference call” to concerned agencies regarding the status and planning for the control of the epidemic. One of the regular participants in the weekly conference call remarked: “…The groundbreaking research that Bill and his colleagues did on the SLE 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…”.

When Bill Reeves was 12 years old he had a job delivering the Saturday Evening Post. One of his customers, a Mr. Moultin, resisted paying for the magazine, necessitating collection from his wife or daughter. That daughter, Mary Jane, later became Mrs. William C. Reeves. They had three sons; William C., Robert, and Terry.

Bill took great pride in his special California automobile license plate number: “Culex T”!





Copyright © 2004 UC Berkeley

A medical entomologist and leading figure in arbovirology. He was born on Dec 2, 1916, in Riverside, California, USA, and died aged 87 years from complications following a fall on Sept 19, 2004, at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, California.

On a Sunday afternoon some 35 years ago, William (Bill) Reeves was sitting in the back yard of his colleague Leonard Syme's house, chatting about work over a barbecue. Syme's 8-year-old son, David, was nearby, listening to the grown-ups talk. Reeves asked him, “Do you know what my job is?” “Sure”, said David. “You're a psychologist who's interested in mosquitoes.” In retrospect, Len Syme—now professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley—thinks his son somehow got it right. Although Reeves' scientific legacy is as a pre-eminent arbovirologist, those who knew him also recall a man whose gruff exterior hid a sensitive and insightful heart.

Together with William M Hammon, Reeves led a research team that in 1941 isolated both western equine and St Louis encephalitis viruses from the Culex tarsalis mosquito. Their work confirmed for the first time that the diseases, which had plagued the western USA throughout the 1930s, were transmitted by insects. He also invented the “sentinel chicken” disease-monitoring system, when he discovered that chickens develop antibodies after being bitten by infected mosquitoes, but do not become ill or carry enough virus to transmit the disease. The system was adopted by California's Encephalitis Surveillance Programme and has since been copied worldwide. It is still used today in some areas to monitor the spread of West Nile virus.

Reeves grew up on his family's farm in Riverside, California, and inherited a love of the outdoors from his father. His fascination with insects surfaced early. “My interest even led to a nickname in the rural neighbourhood of ‘Billy Bugs Reeves’, which didn't bother me any”, he told the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History office in a 1990 interview. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in entomology from Berkeley in 1938, and a doctorate in medical entomology and parasitology in 1943. During World War II, Reeves worked as a civilian adviser to the US military, investigating mosquito-borne viruses, including a 1945 outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in Okinawa. After the war, in 1949, he earned a master's in epidemiology.

Until his retirement in 1987, Reeves was a professor of epidemiology at Berkeley, and served as dean of its School of Public Health from 1967 to 1971. He never moved far from the Californian university, nor did his academic attention shift far from Cx tarsalis. “He was a giant in the field of arbovirology”, said Roy Campbell, a graduate student of Reeves who now heads the surveillance and epidemiology activity of the Arboviral Diseases Branch at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Fort Collins, Colorado. “But he was also extremely knowledgeable in the history of public health.” His academic stature was matched by his imposing, six-foot-plus physique. “He reminded us all of John Wayne”, said Campbell, and like Wayne's motion-picture cowboys, he could be taciturn, brusque, even rude.

“He would sometimes characterise people in a way that could be rude, but then a year later it would turn out to be exactly right”, said Syme, a sociologist who Reeves hired at the school of epidemiology in the late 1960s. “Over the years, every time I would go to him for advice, I'd get 10 or 15 minutes of abuse about what I needed to fix and so on, but then he would switch gears and come up with the most sensitive, intuitive, reasonable advice ever.”

After his retirement, Reeves came to the UC Berkeley campus 4 days a week, and continued teaching a few graduate students. “He was very direct. In an intellectual environment, you had to be on your toes”, said Campbell. “But he was an extremely good academic advisor, and was respectful of his graduate students, giving each one a great deal of attention.”

In 1999, when West Nile Virus emerged as a public-health threat, first in New York, and then further afield in the USA, health officials asked Reeves for his advice. “He was contacted very early on when the birds started to fall out of the sky”, said Campbell. Already in his 80s, Reeves participated in conference calls that the CDC held during the virus transmission season, and his research on St Louis encephalitis provided a blueprint for understanding West Nile and predicting its behaviour. “It was all stuff Bill and his colleagues had described 40 years ago”, Campbell said.

Reeves is survived by his wife Mary Jane; sons William Jr, Robert, and Terrence; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Article Info

Publication History

Published: 09 October 2004


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17175-4


© 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


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