From The Lancet, 24 November 2012 (words by Alison Snyder).
Epidemiologist who led controversial studies of chronic fatigue syndrome. Born on March 27, 1943, in San Francisco, CA, USA, he died in Atlanta, GA, USA, on Aug 3, 2012, aged 69 years.
As the head of the chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) programme at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for nearly 20 years, William Reeves led the first, extensive investigations into possible causes of the syndrome. “Under Reeves’ leadership in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the CDC became the world’s most productive research group studying chronic fatigue syndrome. They advanced the field”, says Anthony Komaroff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “In the field of CFS, Bill led from the front in delineating and thus legitimising the illness, while being unafraid to examine and integrate biological, psychological, and social factors. He understood that mind and body are indivisible and that understanding both was necessary for this illness, as in all human suffering,” says colleague Peter White, Professor of Psychological Medicine at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London.
After Reeves took the helm at the CDC’s CFS research programme in 1992, he undertook population-based studies that informed how the syndrome is defined as well as the epidemiology of the illness. Reeves also investigated an infectious cause for CFS. With Andrew Lloyd and colleagues in Australia, he reported that three different infections (Epstein-Barr virus, Coxiella burnetii, or Ross River virus) triggered CFS in 28 (11%) of 253 participants infected. But, he also published a series of papers that reported there was no association between the syndrome and human herpes virus, mycoplasma, and endogenous retroviruses. Reeves’ findings seemed to anger many in the patient community. Just a few years earlier, many of them had championed him for blowing the whistle on his superiors at the CDC for using funds allocated to studying CFS to investigate other diseases.
After the funds were returned to the CFS programme, Reeves began to look beyond infectious agents for a cause for the syndrome. “The program had been applying the best methods to look for a single infectious cause. But there was no single cause. Reeves followed the information the program was generating”, says Elizabeth Unger, now Chief of the CDC’s Chronic Viral Diseases Branch, which includes the CFS programme. He began to look at the role of personality, behavioural issues, and early life stress in CFS. “Our results suggest that CFS is associated with an increased prevalence of maladaptive personality features and personality disorders”, Reeves and his colleagues wrote in 2010. “Bill’s interest in the link between stress and CFS was not welcomed by many CFS patient organisations”, according to White. But Unger says Reeves’ work is misinterpreted: “Early life stress, for example, is a risk factor for CFS but that doesn’t mean the disease is out of the realm of biology.” In 2009, a report published in Science, which was later partially retracted, suggested that the retrovirus XMRV might cause CFS. Reeves’ scepticism was loud and immediate. “When Bill’s immediate scepticism of the link between the retrovirus XMRV and CFS was widely reported in 2009, something which we now know was prescient, several US patient organisations made a determined effort to persuade the CDC to remove him from the CFS program”, says White. In 2010, Reeves was reassigned to a mental health surveillance programme at the CDC.
A divisive figure among patients and researchers, Reeves’ colleagues remember him as a vibrant researcher. “He loved his work and was enthusiastic and energetic”, says Unger. “He was a pioneer in taking this illness very seriously and in using technology to address questions about the syndrome.” White nods to Reeves’ love of Shakespeare’s King Lear in describing his colleague as: “a man more sinn’d against than sinning”.
Reeves received a bachelors degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1965, a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco in 1969, and a master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of Washington in 1975. He worked at the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in Panama from 1977 to 1989. There he studied human papillomavirus (HPV) and his group was one of the first to link HPV and cervical cancer. “It was one of the results he was most proud of,” says Unger, adding that “He advanced the field of molecular epidemiology. He combined excellent laboratory methods and epidemiology studies.” Reeves is survived by his wife, Barbara, his son, daughter, and two grandchildren.