Dr. William C. Reeves, Who Sought Cause of Fatigue Syndrome, Dies at 69
By DENISE GRADY
Published: August 8, 2012
Dr. William C. Reeves, an epidemiologist who fought his own federal
agency to obtain funds to study chronic fatigue syndrome, then
infuriated patients with the ailment by suggesting that it was linked
to psychological problems rather than a virus, died Friday at his home
in Atlanta. He was 69.
The cause has not yet been determined, his son, Will, said.
Earlier in his career Dr. Reeves helped confirm that cervical cancer
was caused by a virus. But from 1992 until 2010, at the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, he directed research on one of the
most contentious subjects in medicine: chronic fatigue syndrome. At
least one million Americans have the condition, which causes severe
fatigue, muscle and joint pain, sleep problems, difficulty
concentrating and other problems. Its cause is unknown, symptoms can
last for years, and there is no effective treatment. More women than
men have the syndrome, and many people who have it feel brushed off by
doctors, labeled neurotic or malingering.
When Dr. Reeves took charge of research on the syndrome, patients and
advocacy groups had been complaining that the government was not
taking it seriously or trying hard enough to find its cause. Dr.
Reeves believed the disease was real, and many patients were gratified
when, in 1998, he revealed that officials at the disease centers had
spent money intended for chronic fatigue research on other diseases,
and had lied to Congress about it.
In 1999, Dr. Reeves's claims were confirmed: a report by the Office of
Inspector General found that from 1995 to 1998, $8.8 million allocated
by Congress to chronic fatigue had gone to other diseases like measles
and polio, and another $4 million could not be fully accounted for
because of murky bookkeeping. The figures added up to more than half
the total meant for chronic fatigue. As a result, the C.D.C. agreed to
restore the misspent money to the chronic fatigue program, and Dr.
Reeves's boss was transferred to a different job.
But patients and advocacy groups became increasingly disillusioned
with Dr. Reeves and the direction of C.D.C. research. Many patients
believe that research should focus on looking for viruses or other
infections that might cause the syndrome. But Dr. Reeves grew more and
more skeptical, saying the data did not support that approach. Studies
that he led suggested that stress and a history of physical, sexual or
emotional abuse were contributing factors, angering many patients.
"He tried desperately hard to find the etiology, whether it was
physiological or an infectious disease or whatever," said Thomas M.
Folks, a former colleague at the disease centers who is now the
associate director for research resources at the Southwest National
Primate Research Center in San Antonio. "But his research just
continually led to a noninfectious etiology."
Patients also resented his resistance to changing the name of the
syndrome to something that sounded more medically legitimate than
"chronic fatigue," and deplored his use of a case definition that many
said cast too wide a net and included people who had depression, not
chronic fatigue syndrome.
"He was a very talented and brilliant man who was very opinionated and
often did not express his opinion with tact," said Dr. Elizabeth R.
Unger, who succeeded Dr. Reeves as chief of the chronic viral diseases
branch at the disease centers.
A growing chorus of bloggers and advocacy groups denounced Dr. Reeves,
and in 2009 an advisory committee to the Department of Health and
Human Services recommended "progressive leadership" for the chronic
fatigue program. In 2010, without public explanation, the disease
centers assigned Dr. Reeves to a new post as senior adviser for mental
health surveillance, and put Dr. Unger in charge of chronic fatigue.
The cause of the syndrome remains a mystery. Results are expected
within the next few months from a major study designed to find out
whether viruses or other infections somehow touch it off.
William Carlisle Reeves was born March 27, 1943, in San Francisco. His
mother was a teacher; his father, also named William Carlisle Reeves,
was dean of the school of public health at the University of
California, Berkeley, and a leading expert on arbovirology, the study
of insect-borne viral diseases like dengue, yellow fever, encephalitis
and West Nile disease.
"His father practically invented arbovirology," said Dr. C. J. Peters,
a former C.D.C. colleague of the younger Dr. Reeves and now a
professor of tropical virology and emerging infectious diseases.
"Being the son of somebody like that isn't easy, and I've often
wondered how much of his flamboyance was related to the fact that he
wanted to show he was independent."
Dr. Reeves earned a bachelor's degree in 1965 from the University of
California, Berkeley, an M.D. in 1969 from the University of
California, San Francisco, and a master's degree in epidemiology in
1975 from the University of Washington in Seattle. From 1977 to 1989
he worked in virology and epidemiology in Panama at the Gorgas
Memorial Laboratory, which was supported by the governments of the
United States and Panama. It was there that he led a study, the first
to use samples from a large population, which confirmed that there was
a link between cervical cancer and infection with a sexually
transmitted virus. In 2003, the Panamanian government gave him its
highest scientific honor.
Besides his son, Will, he is survived by his wife of 46 years,
Barbara; a daughter, Myra; two brothers, Robert and Terrence; and two
Dr. Reeves was an award-winning amateur photographer and an avid
outdoorsman who threw himself into kayaking, white-water canoeing,
hiking and caving. He had been out kayaking the day before his death,
his son said.