William Reeves, 69; studied chronic fatigue
NEW YORK — 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 had 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, he directed research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on one of the most contentious subjects in medicine: chronic fatigue syndrome.
At least 1 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’ 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 diseases such as 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 CDC 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 CDC research. Many patients think that research should focus on looking for viruses or other infections that might cause the syndrome. But Dr. Reeves grew 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 those with 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 Unger in charge of chronic fatigue research.
The cause of the syndrome remains a mystery. Results are expected within the next few months from a study designed to determine whether viruses or other infections touch it off.
William Carlisle Reeves was born 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 such as dengue, yellow fever, encephalitis, and West Nile disease.
‘‘His father practically invented arbovirology,’’ said Dr. C. J. Peters, a former CDC colleague of the younger Dr. Reeves. ‘‘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, 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 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. While there, 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.
Besides his son, Dr. Reeves leaves his wife of 46 years, Barbara; a daughter, Myra; two brothers, Robert and Terrence; and two grandchildren.
Dr. Reeves also was an award-winning amateur photographer and an avid outdoorsman who threw himself into kayaking, whitewater canoeing, hiking, and caving. He had been out kayaking the day before his death, his son said.