A Local Life: Priscilla Copeland Reining

Anthropologist Broke Ground on AIDS, Satellite Mapping

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

Priscilla Reining first met the Haya people of Tanzania in 1951, when she was a young anthropologist at the beginning of her career. She traveled to the western shores of Lake Victoria, in the highlands of East Africa, lived among the Haya for several years and became an authority on the village life of sub-Saharan Africa. She even helped capture and kill a leopard threatening a Haya settlement.

After moving to Washington in 1960, she taught at Howard University, then joined the Office of International Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as a researcher in 1974. She was hired by celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In the mid-1980s, when Reining was making one of her visits to Tanzania, she noticed that the Haya people were growing sick and dying at an alarming rate. She began to study the new plague sweeping the continent, and at a conference in 1988, she learned of an apparent connection between circumcision and the transmission of the AIDS virus. For some reason, uncircumcised men in Kenya had a much higher risk of being infected.

That was all Reining needed to hear. With her decades of immersion in African culture, she knew that many groups practiced ritual male circumcision but that many others -- including the Haya -- did not.

In addition to her knowledge of African life, Reining was an expert on mapping and had used satellite imagery to study settlement patterns and environmental change. Putting her two specialties together, she drew up a map of Africa and identified 409 distinct ethnic groups according to their circumcision practices.

She then compared it with map showing the rates of HIV infection and found a near-perfect match. In a 1989 study published in Current Science with three co-authors, Reining spelled out the unmistakable correlation: Uncircumcised African men were 86 percent more likely to get the AIDS virus than those who had been circumcised. Her findings held true across different regions, ethnic groups and religious faiths in Africa.

At first, her study was ignored or dismissed. Some African peoples had taboos against circumcision, and many scientists couldn't believe that such a simple procedure could produce such startling results.

"It's fascinating that the one intervention that is simple, apparently effective, cheap and lifelong is the one most violently opposed by men in this field," said Brian Williams, a South African AIDS researcher. "There is a strange reluctance even to discuss it."

Yet study after study -- there have now been more than 60 -- supported Reining's initial findings. She was interviewed for a BBC documentary in 2000, and one-time skeptics were convinced by years of mounting evidence that she had been right all along.

She was a distinguished scientist who held three degrees in anthropology from the University of Chicago, but she was also, according to those who knew her, a courageous and groundbreaking example to other women.

In 1953, she moved to Tanzania with her infant son, the first of her three children, and lived near a Haya village for two years. At the same time, her husband, Conrad C. Reining, was conducting research in Sudan.

They fled a Sudanese uprising in 1955.

"We were lucky to escape," Robert Reining said. "My father knew a back road out of Sudan into Congo. He led a whole convoy of people, and they escaped." (Conrad Reining, who worked at the Library of Congress and was a longtime anthropology professor at Catholic University, died in 1984.)

Robert Reining took a year off from college in the mid-1970s to help his mother on an early satellite mapping project. Whole regions of Africa suddenly came into view. Scientists could measure the advance of the Sahara Desert, and governments and lending agencies could plan drought and famine relief.

"These were the first images available to anyone outside the intelligence community," said her son. "For the first time, we could count the villages. You had what was effectively the first reliable population estimate of this area."

During her 50-year career, Reining did research for the United Nations, World Bank, Peace Corps and National Science Foundation. But 17 years after her initial AIDS study, her own government still doubted her. Last fall, the Bush administration canceled funding of a circumcision program in Swaziland, saying the issue needed more study.

But finally, at an international AIDS conference in Sydney last week, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, declared, "We've had one important breakthrough this year, with understanding the role of circumcision in prevention."

The vote of confidence came too late for Reining, who died July 19 of lung cancer at her home in Washington. She was 84.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company