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Obituary
William C. Reeves

| 22 September 2004


William C. Reeves
William C. Reeves, a professor of epidemiology and dean emeritus of public health widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on the spread and control of mosquito-borne diseases, including West Nile virus, has died. He was 87.

Reeves lapsed into a coma after complications from a fall on Wednesday, Sept. 15. He died four days later, on Sunday, Sept. 19, at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

“In one lifetime, Bill Reeves both identified a major cause of death and disease in California — western equine encephalitis — and developed mosquito-control programs to eradicate it,” said Leonard Syme, professor emeritus of epidemiology and a close friend of Reeves’ for more than 35 years.

Reeves and William M. Hammon, second dean of the School of Public Health, led the research team that in 1941 isolated both the western equine and St. Louis encephalitis viruses from a species of mosquito called Culex tarsalis. That confirmed for the first time that the diseases caused by these viruses, which had been plaguing the western United States throughout the 1930s, were transmitted by insects. The discovery enabled public-health officials to target effectively a key source of disease transmission and provided a blueprint for the current battle to control West Nile virus.

Reeves, one of only a few entomologists working in a field dominated by medical specialists, discovered several new species of insects, including a mosquito that a colleague initially dubbed Culex reevisi in his honor (Reeves later renamed the mosquito Culex boharti). He is also credited with helping coin the term arbovirus, short for “arthropod-borne virus,” a name eventually accepted by the World Health Organization.

“He was a giant in his field whose work has had a pervasive impact for more than six decades,” said Stephen Shortell, dean of the School of Public Health.
Indeed, it was the death of a crow in New York City that pulled Reeves out of retirement in 1999. West Nile virus had emerged as a new public-health threat, and there were few people more qualified than Reeves to advise state and federal health officials on the epidemic. Reeves became a resource for public-health officials, many of whom were his former students.

“Bill participated regularly in conference calls that CDC held with state health departments during the West Nile virus transmission season,” said Roy Campbell, chief of surveillance and epidemiology activity in the Arboviral Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Ft. Collins, Colo. “The groundbreaking research that Bill and his colleagues did on the St. Louis encephalitis virus — a close cousin to West Nile virus — gave us a roadmap for understanding West Nile virus, helping us predict how it would behave in North America. His death will resonate throughout the arboviral community.”

They called him ‘Billy Bugs’

Reeves was born to William Claude Reeves and Abie Bessie Harriet Brant on Dec. 2, 1916, in Riverside, Calif. He grew up on the family farm and inherited a love for the outdoors from his father, who took young Reeves on frequent fishing trips. Reeves recalled a childhood of “chasing bugs” in a 1990 interview with the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History office, and recollected earning himself a childhood nickname, “Billy Bugs Reeves.”

His relationship with the University of California began in the mid-1930s when he got a job at the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station while a student at Riverside Junior College. He was impressed by work on biological control of insect pests that was conducted at the research station, the predecessor of the UC Riverside campus. After earning an associate’s degree, Reeves enrolled at Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in entomology in 1938 and a Ph.D. in medical entomology and parasitology in 1943.

Reeves held appointments as lecturer at both UCSF and Berkeley while working on his doctorate. After earning his Ph.D., Reeves continued lecturing at Berkeley, while enrolling as a student in the second class of the campus’s newly established School of Public Health in 1945.

In 1949, Reeves earned his master’s degree in epidemiology and became professor of epidemiology at Berkeley. He headed the campus’s epidemiology program from 1971 to 1985; he also served as dean of the School of Public Health from 1967 to 1971. Though Reeves officially retired in 1987, 41 years after he joined the faculty at Berkeley, he continued to come to his campus office four days a week.

Reeves received numerous honors throughout his career, including a UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981, a John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association in 1982, the Berkeley Citation in 1987, a U.S. Army Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service in 1987, and the Walter Reed Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.


He also served as chair of the American Committee on Arthropod-borne Viruses, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a member of many organizations, including the American Entomological Society, the American Epidemiological Society, and the American Public Health Association.

Reeves is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, of Walnut Creek; sons William Jr. of Atlanta, Robert of Gresham, Ore., and Terrence of Hood River, Ore.; four grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

Donations in Reeves’s memory may be made to the School of Public Health Fund and mailed to the Office of External Relations, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, 140 Warren Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360. To make a donation online, visit https://colt.berkeley.edu/egiving/MainForm.asp