Scientist Who Found Cause of Lyme Disease Dead at 89

Willy Burgdorfer discovered tick-borne bacteria
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2014 4:21 PM CST
Scientist Who Found Cause of Lyme Disease Dead at 89
This 1954 photo provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows Willy Burgdorfer at work in Hamilton, Mont.   (AP Photo/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

A researcher who figured out how people were contracting a new ailment called Lyme disease in the early 1980s has died at age 89, reports NBC Montana. Swiss-born Willy Burgdorfer made the discovery while not even looking for it. He was dissecting deer ticks sent from Long Island that were suspected in an outbreak of spotted fever when he noticed something unusual—corkscrew-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, explains the New York Times.

"He immediately recognized these things under the microscope, and thought, 'Aha, this is probably what's causing Lyme disease in the Eastern United States,'" says Tom Schwan, a colleague who worked with Burgdorfer at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. Further research proved Burgdorfer right. No cure yet exists for Lyme, but Burgdorfer's discovery paved the way for antibody tests and better prevention. And the offending bacterium has since been named after him: Borrelia burgdorferi. (More obituary stories.)

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