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Dr. William Close dies at 84; physician played a key role in stopping the Ebola virus
Dr. William Close, a self-proclaimed country doctor who became the personal physician of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko and played a key role in halting the 1976 outbreak of the lethal Ebola virus that terrified Zaire and surrounding countries, has died. He was 84.
He died of a heart attack Jan. 15 at his home in Big Piney, Wyo., according to his daughter, actress Glenn Close.
During his 16 years in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Close was for a time the only surgeon at Kinshasa's 1,500-bed Mama Yemo Hospital and, eventually, its administrator. After the unrest associated with the removal of Mobutu from office, Close went back to the city to help rebuild the hospital's eight operating suites.
His connections to the Zairian military, for which he was the surgeon general, and to Mobutu were crucial in halting the terrifying outbreak of disease caused by the newly identified Ebola virus.
Ebola produces classic hemorrhagic fever, which is characterized by a sore throat, rashes, abdominal pain, bleeding from sites throughout the body and, in as many as 90% of cases, death.
Its first known appearance was Aug. 26, 1976, in the rural village of Yambuku on the Ebola River in northern Zaire. Ultimately, 318 cases were identified, with 280 deaths. An additional 284 cases and 151 deaths occurred in nearby Sudan.
In Yambuku, the small hospital was closed after 11 of its 17 staff members died. Belgian nuns serving the village were also infected, and two of them died, along with a Zairian nurse, after the group was transported to Kinshasa.
"There was fear, panic and chaos, with people fleeing and not knowing what was going on," said Dr. Joel G. Breman, who is now at the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center but was then an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control. "It was the scariest epidemic of my entire medical career, and possibly of the last century."
The Zairian government had asked the CDC for help, and Breman and virologist Carl Johnson, who had isolated and photographed the Ebola virus only a week earlier, were on a SwissAir night flight from Geneva to Kinshasa. "The guy sitting next to me was Bill Close," Breman said. The three discussed the situation throughout the eight-hour journey.
In addition to his formal positions, Close had been a mentor and patron to several Congolese authorities, including the minister of health, who chaired the international commission fighting the outbreak. "He had a lot of influence in the country," Breman said, and he used it to gather medical equipment and personnel.
Close also convinced the small Zairian air force to fly the materials to Yambuku, which was 600 miles north of the capital and otherwise inaccessible. The air force also provided helicopters so the team could visit 550 villages in the area.
The outbreak was eventually contained by quarantining villagers in their communities, sterilizing medical equipment and providing protective clothing to medical personnel.
William Taliaferro Close was born June 7, 1924, in Greenwich, Conn., just minutes after his twin brother Edward. He was raised in France, where he gained a fluency in the language that proved invaluable during his African sojourn, and educated in Britain and the United States. He enrolled at Harvard in 1941 but left two years later to become an Army pilot, flying troop transports in Europe during World War II.
After the war, he earned his medical degree from Columbia University and trained as a surgeon at Roosevelt Hospital in New York. He and his wife, Bettine, also became active in the missionary group Moral Re-Armament, and he went to Zaire in 1960 on its behalf to observe the independence celebrations.
Most of Mama Yemo's Belgian physicians and surgeons had returned home, and when fighting broke out Close volunteered his services, performing surgery "essentially 24/7" for four months, according to his daughter. After the hostilities ended, he became administrator of the hospital and recruited physicians from around the world.
The maternity ward he upgraded at the hospital was soon averaging 120 deliveries a day, second only to a hospital in Tokyo, his daughter said. He also oversaw the building and management of a 700-ton hospital ship that treated people up and down the Congo River.
Eventually, however, he grew disillusioned by the growing corruption and disintegration and returned home to fulfill his original desire -- to become a country doctor.
Even before traveling to Africa, Close and his wife had scouted out potential sites in Wyoming, eventually settling on the least-populated county in the least-populated state. When he finally arrived there, Big Piney and the nearby community of Marbleton, with combined populations of less than 2,500, were served only by a resident nurse-practitioner and a physician from Jackson who drove the 90 miles to the communities once or twice a week.
Close served as a general practitioner and surgeon, meeting the healthcare needs of the entire region.
"In the Congo, where he worked, he treated people with respect and understanding of their culture, and he did this also in Wyoming," Breman said. "He was just a magnetic, charismatic guy."
Close was the author of four books, including a novel about his experiences during the Ebola outbreak and histories of his medical career in Zaire and Wyoming.
Close oversaw the construction of a large new clinic, which opened in Marbleton just this month. According to his daughter, he made his final house call only three days before he died.
Close is survived by his wife of 65 years, Bettine; three daughters, Glenn of New York, Tina of Wilson, Wyo., and Jessie of Bozeman, Mont.; a son, Alexander of Belgrade, Mont.; an adopted Congolese son, Tambu Misoki of Sacramento; his brother, Edward, of Littleton, Colo.; and nine grandchildren.