Biologist Terry Yates; Found Source of Deadly Hantavirus

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Terry L. Yates, 57, a biologist who discovered the source of the deadly hantavirus in the American Southwest and who held several leadership positions with the National Science Foundation in Washington, died Dec. 11 of brain cancer at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque. He was a University of New Mexico vice president and lived in Placitas, N.M.

In the spring of 1993, many people in the Four Corners region, where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet, were stricken with a mysterious illness. The virus, which killed 32 people in a matter of weeks, was originally called "Sin Nombre," after a canyon in New Mexico where Spanish settlers had massacred Indian inhabitants.

Dr. Yates, a biologist whose specialty was rodents and small mammals, was part of an interdisciplinary research team that set out to find the cause. Using animal specimens he had collected over the years throughout the Southwest, Dr. Yates, with research partner Robert Parmenter, isolated the source of what came to be known as the hantavirus.

The virus was carried by deer mice, which were in abundance in 1993 because of unusually wet weather in the Southwest. Medical authorities have not been able to eliminate the hantavirus -- which has killed more than 125 people in the United States in the past 15 years -- but by learning how it is transmitted, they have greatly reduced its lethal effect.

The National Science Foundation named Dr. Yates's discovery one of the 50 projects funded by the foundation with the greatest impact on people's lives in the United States. In recent years, Dr. Yates had been studying the connection between changing weather patterns and deer mice populations, which allowed state health officials to warn New Mexico residents about increased risks of the hantavirus.

"Terry was a guy who saw the linkages in natural history between species and big environmental changes, including human health," said David Schmidly, president of the University of New Mexico and Dr. Yates's master's degree supervisor at Texas A&M University in the 1970s. "He was very creative, a big-picture thinker."

From 1990 to 1992 and again in 2000 and 2001, Dr. Yates lived in Washington, where he directed the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology. Since last year, he had been a member of the board on life sciences of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to his work on the hantavirus, he worked on a fiber-optic cable network and a national biodiversity research project.

Terry Lamon Yates was born in Mayfield, Ky., and graduated from Kentucky's Murray State University. He received a master's degree in biology from Texas A&M in 1975 and a PhD in biology from Texas Tech University in 1978.

For the past 29 years, he had been affiliated with the University of New Mexico, where he was a professor of biology and pathology and also the university's vice president for research and economic development.

He published more than 125 scientific papers and directed 17 doctoral dissertations at the university. He was also a curator and former director of the university's Museum of Southwestern Biology and helped create a remote ecological research site near Socorro, N.M.

Dr. Yates was prominent in national scientific circles and served as chairman of the board of trustees of the American Society of Mammalogists. He was president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance and president-elect of the Council on Research Policy and Graduate Education of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

He received the Leopold Conservation Award from the Nature Conservancy in 1991, as well as many academic honors.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Nancy F. Yates of Placitas; and two sons, Brian Yates of San Diego and Michael Yates of Albuquerque.

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