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William C. Reeves, professor emeritus and giant in arbovirology, dies at 87

– William C. Reeves, a professor and dean emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who was widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on the spread and control of mosquito-borne diseases, including West Nile virus, has died. He was 87.

Reeves lapsed into a coma after complications from a fall on Wednesday, Sept. 15. He died four days later, on Sunday, Sept. 19, at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif.

William Reeves
William C. Reeves (Jane Scherr photo)
 
Print-quality images available for download

"In one lifetime, Bill Reeves both identified a major cause of death and disease in California - western equine encephalitis - and developed mosquito control programs to eradicate it," said Leonard Syme, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of epidemiology and a close friend of Reeves' for more than 35 years.

Reeves and William M. Hammon, UC Berkeley's second dean of the School of Public Health, led the research team that in 1941 isolated both western equine and St. Louis encephalitis viruses from a species of mosquito called Culex tarsalis. That confirmed for the first time that the diseases caused by these viruses, which had been plaguing the western United States throughout the 1930s, were transmitted by insects. The discovery enabled public health officials to effectively target a key source of disease transmission, and provided a blueprint for the current battle to control West Nile virus.

Reeves, one of only a few entomologists working in a field dominated by medical specialists, went on to isolate more arthropod-borne viruses and developed numerous innovations. With his knowledge of what attracts mosquitoes to animals, Reeves designed the first live trap - considered state-of-the-art at the time - using carbon dioxide and light.

He also invented a method of tracking mosquitoes by marking them with a fluorescent dust. This suddenly enabled researchers to study the mosquitoes' life cycles, including how far they traveled, how long they lived and other critical information used to design and evaluate mosquito control programs.

One of the more notable innovations Reeves established is the now-famous "sentinel chicken" disease monitoring system, developed during his research on western equine and St. Louis encephalitis viruses. Reeves discovered that chickens develop antibodies after being bitten by infected mosquitoes, but they do not become ill nor carry enough of the virus to further transmit the disease. Researchers also know that when any blood tests come back positive, it means infected mosquitoes are in the vicinity because domestic chickens are kept in one place.

The system was adopted by California's Encephalitis Surveillance Program and has since been copied throughout the world. It is still used today in some areas to monitor the spread of West Nile virus.

William Reeves and a colleague trap mosquitoes
William C. Reeves and Australian researcher Malcolm Simpson collect mosquitoes from pools of standing water in Murray Valley, Australia, 1952. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)

Reeves had discovered several new species of insects throughout his career, including a mosquito that a colleague initially dubbed Culex reevisi in his honor (Reeves later renamed the mosquito Culex boharti). He is also credited with helping coin the term arbovirus, short for "arthropod-borne virus," a name eventually accepted, by 1960, by the World Health Organization.

"He was a giant in his field whose work has had a pervasive impact for over six decades," said Stephen Shortell, dean of UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.

Reeves was born to William Claude Reeves and Abie Bessie Harriet Brant on Dec. 2, 1916, in Riverside, Calif. He grew up on the family farm and inherited a love for the outdoors from his father, who took young Reeves on frequent fishing trips.

Reeves recalled a childhood of "chasing bugs" in a 1990 interview with the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History office, and earned himself a childhood nickname, "Billy Bugs Reeves."

His relationship with the University of California began in the mid-1930s when he got a job at the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station while a student at Riverside Junior College. He was impressed by work on biological control of insect pests that was conducted at the research station, the predecessor of the UC Riverside campus.

A leg injury that limited his ability to play basketball and other sports marked a turning point in Reeves' academic career. He had later said that injury was "the best thing that ever happened" to him because he finally buckled down to study.

After earning an associate's degree from Riverside Junior College, Reeves enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor's degree in entomology in 1938, and a Ph.D. in medical entomology and parasitology in 1943.

During his college days, in 1940, Reeves married Mary Jane Moulton, a woman he had known since childhood when he delivered newspapers to her family's home in Riverside. They had three sons.

Reeves held appointments as lecturer at both UCSF and UC Berkeley while getting his doctorate degree. After earning his Ph.D., Reeves continued lecturing at UC Berkeley, while enrolling as a student in the second class of the campus's newly established School of Public Health in 1945.

It was during these graduate studies at UC Berkeley that Reeves began to specialize in mosquito research. He worked with the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District and was known to expose his arm to hundreds of mosquito bites a day in the line of duty.

Reeves had started his research in the late 1930s on the treehole mosquito, Ochlerotatus sierrensis, but soon switched to studying western equine and St. Louis encephalitides with Hammon at the UC San Francisco Hooper Foundation for Medical Research, which was directed by Karl F. Meyer.

During World War II, Reeves began working as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military investigating mosquito-borne viruses all over the country and overseas, including a 1945 outbreak of Japanese B encephalitis in Okinawa. Following the war, he continued to work with various commissions, including the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Advisory Panel. On the panel, he chaired the Ad hoc Review Group on Viral Diseases, and the Ad hoc Study Group on Medical Entomology.

In 1949, Reeves earned his master's degree in epidemiology and became professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley. Reeves headed the school's epidemiology program from 1971 to 1985.

Reeves also served as dean of the School of Public Health from 1967 to 1971, a time when the campus was rocked by student protests. He would later say that he spent much of his time "holding the fort" during that tumultuous period.

It was during his deanship that Reeves recruited Syme, a forward-thinking move because of Syme's background in sociology, and Dr. Warren Winkelstein Jr., who would succeed Reeves as dean in 1971 and later develop a large research program on the epidemiology of AIDS.

Reeves officially retired in 1987, 41 years after he joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, though he continued to come to his campus office four days a week.

It was the death of a crow in New York City that pulled Reeves out of retirement in 1999. West Nile Virus had emerged as a new public health threat, and there were few people more qualified than
Reeves to advise state and federal health officials on the epidemic. Reeves became an invaluable resource for public health officials, many of whom were his former students.

"Bill participated regularly in conference calls that CDC held with state health departments during the West Nile virus transmission season," said former student Dr. Roy Campbell, chief of the surveillance and epidemiology activity of the Arboviral Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Ft. Collins, Colo. "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. His death will resonate throughout the arboviral community."

Reeves received numerous prestigious honors throughout his career, including a UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981, a John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association in 1982, a Berkeley Citation in 1987, a U.S. Army Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service in 1987 and the Walter Reed Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

He also served as chairman of the American Committee on Arthropod-borne Viruses, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and member of numerous organizations, including the American Entomological Society, the American Epidemiological Society and the American Public Health Association.

William is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, of Walnut Creek, Calif.; sons William Jr. of Atlanta, Ga.; Robert of Gresham, Ore.; and Terrence of Hood River, Ore; four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Donations in Reeves' memory can be made to the School of Public Health Fund and mailed to the Office of External Relations, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, 140 Warren Hall, Berkeley, California, 94720-7360. Details are online.