Dr William C Reeves, 1943-2012 | The Scotsman | 11 August 2012

The Scotsman today published an obituary of Dr Reeves, based on material prepared for the New York Times.

Dr William C Reeves: controversial researcher who challenged thinking on chronic fatigue syndrome

Dr William C Reeves, epidemiologist. Born: 27 March 1943 in San Francisco. Died: 3 August 2012 in Atlanta, aged. 69.

Dr William C Reeves was an epidemiologist who fought his own paymasters to obtain funds to study chronic fatigue syndrome, then infuriated sufferers by suggesting that it was linked to psychological problems rather than a virus.

Earlier in his career, Reeves helped confirm that cervical cancer was caused by a virus. But from 1992 until 2012, he directed research at the leading US institution in the field into one of the the most contentious subjects in medicine: chronic fatigue syndrome.

The condition causes severe fatigue, muscle and joint pain, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and other problems. Its cause in 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, labelled neurotic or malingering.

When Reeves took charge of research at America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the syndrome, patients and advocacy groups had been complaining that the US government was not taking it seriously or trying hard enough to find its cause. Reeves believed the disease was real, and many patients were gratified she, in 1998, he revealed money intended for Chronic fatigue research had been spent researching other diseases. An official investigation found $8 million (£5m) intended for chronic fatigue research had gone to diseases such as measles and polio between 1995-98, while $4 was not fully accounted for. The figure added up to more than half the total meant for chronic fatigue in the US. As a result, the CDC agreed to restore the misspent money to the chronic fatigue programme, and Reeves’ boss was transferred to a different job.

But patients and advocacy groups became disillusioned with Reeves and the direction of CDC research. Many patients believe that research should focus on looking for viruses or other infections that might cause the syndrome. But Reeves grew more and more sceptical, saying that 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. 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.

A growing chorus of bloggers and advocacy groups denounced Reeves, and in 2099 an advisory committee to the US Department of Health and Human Services recommended “progressive leadership” for the chronic fatigue programme. In 2010, without public explanation, CDC assigned Reeves to a new post as senior adviser for mental health surveillance. The cause of the syndrome remains a mystery. Results are expected within the next few months from a major US study designed to find out whether viruses or other infections trigger it.

William Carlisle Reeves was born on 27 March, 1943, in San Francisco. His mother was a teacher; his father 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 such as dengue, yellow fever, encephalitis and West Nile disease.

Reeves earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965 from the University of California, Berkeley, a medical degree 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 1997 to 1989 he worked in virology and epidemiology in Panama at the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory, which was supported by the US and Panama. It was there that he led a study, the first to use samples from a large population, that confirmed a link between cervical cancer and infection with a sexually transmitted virus. In 2003, the Panamanian government gave him its highest scientific honour.

He us survived by a wife of 46 years, Barbara, a son and daughter and two grandchildren.

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