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Willy Burgdorfer

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Willy Burgdorfer, PhD

Wilhelm (“Willy”) Burgdorfer  [pronounced Burg-door-fur] was an American scientist born and educated in Basel, Switzerland, considered an international leader in the field of medical entomology. He discovered the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme disease, a spirochete named Borrelia burgdorferi [pronounced Bore-ill-ee-a burg-door-fur-eye] in his honor.

He was born on June 27, 1925, in Basel, Switzerland. Dr. Burgdorfer earned his Ph.D. in zoology, parasitology, and bacteriology from the University of Basel and the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel. It was here that Willy perfected his ability to culture pathogens from the ticks.

As a research subject for his thesis he chose to study the development of the African relapsing fever spirochete, Borrelia duttonii, in its tick vector Ornithodoros moubata, and to evaluate this tick's efficiency in transmitting spirochetes during feeding on animal hosts. 

During his college years he was a member of a research team investigating outbreaks of Q fever in various parts of Switzerland and became interested in similar research activities carried out at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (RML) in Hamilton, Montana, a U.S. National Institutes of Health research facility. He joined the RML in 1952 as a research fellow, and later became a research associate in the USPHS's Visiting Scientist Program. In 1957, he became a U.S. citizen and shortly thereafter joined the RML staff as a medical entomologist.

In 1988, Dr. Burgdorfer received a call from Karen Vanderhoof-Forschner and was eager to be an LDF Board member. However, he said would not join unless his friend Bonnie Bennet also joined. Willy had worked with Bonnie during her investigation of the Incline Village Chronic Fatigue investigation. Karen called Bonnie and she also accepted Karen's invitation. Dr. Burgdorfer became the Editor-in-Chief of the LDF’s scientific journal, The Journal of Spirochetal and Tick-borne Diseases when Dr. Tilton took ill.

Willy would randomly call Karen to chat and called her his best friend. Willy served on the LDF’s Board of Directors until his death. Willy died in 2014, at age 89.
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