RIP Dr. Willy Burgdorfer: Scientific Community in Mourning

RIP Dr. Willy Burgdorfer: Scientific Community in Mourning

The discoverer of the spirochete that causes Lyme disease passed away yesterday, November 17, 2014.

In 1982, researcher Willy Burgdorfer, a researcher and expert in spirochetal diseases at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana, along with his colleague Alan Barbour, M.D. from the University of Texas Health Science Center.  The scientists had been studying a large number of ticks in an effort to determine the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

In examining the ticks for rickettsiae (the bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain Fever), Burgdorfer noticed  “poorly stained, rather long, irregularly coiled spirochetes.” Further examination revealed spirochetes in 60% of the ticks. Dr. Burgdorfer and Dr. Barbour continued to study this spiral-shaped bacteria, or spirochete, from infected deer ticks, and in November 1981, the two scientists discovered that the spirochete caused both the symptoms of Lyme disease and the strange bulls-eye rash called erythema migrans (EM). More than half of infected persons do not experience or remember a rash.

The spirochete was later named Borrelia burgdorferi in honor of Dr. Burgdorfer’s role in its discovery. Watch the following video interviewing Dr. Burgdofer about his views on the Lyme disease controversy which he calls “a shameful affair.”

Published on Aug 7, 2014

Dr. Willy Burgdorfer is an American scientist born in 1932 and educated in Basel, Switzerland, considered an international leader in the field of medical entomology. He discovered the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme disease, a spirochete named Borrelia burgdorferi in his honor. Dr. Burgdorfer earned his Ph.D. in zoology, parasitology, and bacteriology from the University and from the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel. As a research subject for his thesis he chose to study the development of the African relapsing fever spirochete, Borrelia duttonii in its tick vector Ornitnodoros moubata, and to evaluate this tick’s efficiency in transmitting spirochetes during feeding on animal hosts. During his college years he was a member of a research team investigating outbreaks of Q fever in various parts of Switzerland and became interested in similar research activities carried out at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (RML) in Hamilton, Montana, a U.S. National Institutes of Health research facility. He joined RML in 1952 as a Research Fellow, and later became a Research Associate in the USPHS’s Visiting Scientist Program. In 1957, he became a U.S. citizen and shortly thereafter joined the RML staff as a Medical Entomologist. Dr. Burgdorfer’s research concerned the interactions between animal and human disease agents and their transmitting arthropod vectors, particularly ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. His research contributions are published in more than 225 papers and books, and cover a wide field of investigations including those on relapsing fevers, plague, tularemia, Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other bacterial and viral diseases. Dr. Burgdorfer gained worldwide recognition for his 1982 discovery of a tick-borne spirochete as the long-sought cause of Lyme disease and related disorders in the U.S. and Europe. The agent was named after him — Borrelia burgdorferi.

Throughout his career, Dr. Burgdorfer participated in a number of World Health Organization (WHO) and other health organization-sponsored seminars and congresses. From 1967-1972, he served as Associate Member on the Rickettsial Commission of the Armed Forces Epidemiology Board. For several years (1968–1971) he was also Co-Project Officer of the PL 480-sponsored Research Project on Rickettsial Zoonoses in Egypt and adjacent areas, and from 1979 to 1986, he directed the WHO-sponsored Reference Center for Rickettsial Diseases at RML in Montana, U.S. Although retired since 1986, Dr. Burgdorfer continues his association with the Rocky Mountain Laboratories’ Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis as Scientist Emeritus. He is also active on the Scientific/Medical Advisory Committee of the Lyme Disease Foundation. In 1999, he delivered the keynote address at the 12th International Conference on Lyme Disease and Other Spirochetal and Tick-Borne Disorders. Honors include: Schaudinn-Hoffman Plaque (1985, German Society of Dermatologists), Robert Koch Gold Medal (1988 Berlin, Germany), Bristol Award (1989, Infectious Diseases Society of America), Walter Reed Medal (1990, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene),
Doctor Medicina Honoris Causa (1986, University of Bern, Switzerland; 1991, University of Marseille, France),
Honorary Degrees of Science (1990, Montana State University; 1994, Ohio State University). Extract from acclaimed Motion Picture “Under Our Skin” Director’s Cut (Open Eye Pictures, 2014). underourskin.com. Bio from Wikipedia.org (English version).

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