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Wayne M. Meyers, researcher and doctor who treated leprosy patients in Africa, dies at 94

Wayne M. Meyers conducting medical research in Africa in the 1960s.
Wayne M. Meyers conducting medical research in Africa in the 1960s. (Family photo)

In preparing for what would become his life’s work, Wayne M. Meyers served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, received two doctorates, attended theology school, studied French and held two medical internships. Perhaps most important, he never lost the inspiration he felt as a child when he heard tales of missionary life while attending a Methodist church in rural Pennsylvania.

In 1953, he was still eight years away from his first trip to Africa when he married Esther Kleinschmidt, who had grown up in what was then called the Belgian Congo, where her parents were medical missionaries. Eight years later, Wayne and Esther Meyers and their three — later four — children moved to Central Africa, where they spent more than a decade working with people afflicted with one of the world’s most feared and misunderstood diseases: leprosy.

From the beginning, it was apparent that Dr. Meyers was no ordinary physician. As the chief medical officer at a leprosarium in Burundi and later in Congo, he did not shield himself from his patients or their conditions.

“When he treated his patients,” his son George Meyers said, “he didn’t gown up or wear gloves or a mask.”

He shook his patients’ hands, examined their wounds, listened to their stories and embarked on a lifetime of care, learning and teaching. He sought to understand the causes of leprosy (or Hansen’s disease, as it is also known) and other tropical illnesses such as Buruli ulcer (a dreaded skin disease) and the debilitating parasite-caused ailment known as river blindness.

Dr. Meyers, who became one of the world’s foremost infectious disease researchers, died Sept. 12 at his home in Laurel, Md., at 94. The cause was cerebrovascular disease, George Meyers said.

Throughout his career, Dr. Meyers wrote more than 400 scientific papers, gave hundreds of lectures and maintained a global registry of leprosy cases. He was president of the International Leprosy Association, a consultant to the World Health Organization and a contributor to or editor of textbooks on infectious diseases.

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“The work Wayne did was absolutely essential and helped change science in amazing ways,” said Aileen M. Marty, a Florida International University professor and former Navy physician who worked alongside Dr. Meyers at the old Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington.

“First and foremost, he was a profoundly humane man,” Marty added. “He was a scientist, he was a researcher, and he was a compassionate physician.”

Dr. Meyers first went to Burundi in 1961 before political turmoil drove his family across the border to Congo. (Congo was later called Zaire before it was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997.)

Local people called his leprosarium, or hospital for leprosy patients, “Kivuvu,” or “place of hope.”

“If you understand leprosy,” Marty said, “you understand all infectious diseases.”

For eight years, Dr. Meyers visited villages throughout the region, treating people and helping once-shunned leprosy patients return to their original homes.

He gained the trust of local leaders by bringing gifts, such as chickens, and by demonstrating the effectiveness of modern medicine. He helped dispel misconceptions about leprosy, such as the notion that a patient’s fingers and toes can fall off.

Dr. Meyers built a laboratory in his clinic, and much of his work was educational. He explained that leprosy was a bacterial infection that is not highly contagious and that more than 90 percent of all people have a natural immunity to the disease. If caught early, it can be easily treated.

For people with more advanced cases, Dr. Meyers developed special shoes to help alleviate orthopedic problems. All the while, he collected tissue samples, which he examined under a microscope and sent back to laboratories in the United States.

One question Dr. Meyers and other researchers have not been able to solve is how people actually get leprosy in the first place.

“The short answer is we don’t really know,” Paul J. Converse, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said Saturday in an interview.

During his years in Africa, Dr. Meyers began to treat other diseases that few Western physicians had seen. One of the most devastating was Mycobacterium ulcerans, or Buruli ulcer, a bacterial skin infection that can spread rapidly and cause serious deformities. When Dr. Meyers presented a lecture on the disease in Baltimore in 1978, Converse said, “it was the first time I’d heard of it.”

Under his microscope, Dr. Meyers discovered a toxin in the Buruli bacterium that attacked neighboring cells and suppressed the immune system. The only treatment was surgery or, in many cases, amputation.

The World Health Organization has launched a global effort to detect and treat Buruli ulcer, and antibiotics have been effective in reducing its severity. So far, no vaccines have been discovered to prevent either leprosy or Buruli ulcer.

Another disease that interested Dr. Meyers was onchocerciasis, or river blindness, which is caused by a filarial, or parasitic, worm. The resulting infection can spread throughout the body and, in some cases, lead to blindness. Dr. Meyers took part in studies by the World Health Organization and helped develop a drug to counteract the disease.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people no longer going blind,” Marty said, “and that’s because of Wayne’s work.”

Wayne Marvin Meyers was born Aug. 28, 1924, in Huntingdon County, Pa. His father was a farmer and carpenter, his mother a homemaker.

He studied chemistry and mathematics at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., before serving in the Army during World War II in the Philippines and in the postwar occupation of Japan.

He graduated from Juniata in 1947, spent two years at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, then received master’s and doctoral degrees in microbiology from the University of Wisconsin in 1953 and 1955, respectively. He graduated from Baylor University’s medical school in Houston in 1959.

Dr. Meyers left Congo in 1973 and spent two years at the University of Hawaii before coming to Washington in 1975 to work at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

He had a laboratory at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he conducted experiments on armadillos, one of the few animals that can develop leprosy in the wild. He formally retired in 2005 but continued to work as a visiting scientist at the institute until 2011, when it was closed because of budget cuts. He and his wife were revising a chapter for a textbook in the weeks before he died.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Esther Kleinschmidt Meyers of Laurel; four children, Amy Nicolai of Houston, George Meyers of Laurel, Daniel Meyers of Fort Worth and Sara Meyers-Clark of Woodbine, Md.; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Meyers seldom gave interviews, but scientists, doctors and patients regarded him with something approaching reverence.

“His mission was to solve human illnesses and to eliminate pain and human suffering.” Marty said. “He really fulfilled the golden mission of physicians.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Buruli ulcer affects five times as many people worldwide as tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is far more widespread.

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