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Scientist Who Identified Origin of Lyme Disease Dies at 89

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
Dr. Willy Burgdorfer identified the bacterium responsible for Lyme Disease.

Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, the Swiss-born researcher who gained international recognition for discovering the origins of Lyme disease, has died.

In the 1970s, Lyme disease was thought to be a form of juvenile arthritis that was transmitted by ticks. It was first described by a Yale scientist in Lyme, Connecticut, but before Burgdorfer, no one knew what caused it.

While studying deer ticks, Burgdorfer found spiral-shaped bacteriums -- called "spirochetes" that he positively identified as the disease's cause. His groundbreaking research was published in a 1982 edition of the journal Science.

Since then, Lyme has become the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the U.S., but the opinions of mainstream science about the ability of the illness to persist in the body following antibiotic treatment have often not satisfied those suffering from the disease.

Speaking in the 2008 documentary "Under our Skin," Burgdorfer condemned arguments that have erupted in the medical industry about Lyme detection and treatment. "The controversy in Lyme disease research is a shameful affair," he said. "I say that because the whole thing is politically tainted. Money goes to people who have, for the past 30 years produced the same thing -- nothing."

Burgdorfer died in Montana. He was 89.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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