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He Helped Solve the Mystery of Lyme Disease

In the 1970s, a cluster of cases of unexplained severe joint pain and swelling was breaking out in a small three-township area in Connecticut, as a 1976 New York Times article detailed. Fortunately, the mysterious affliction soon came to the attention of a team of Yale University medical researchers headed by rheumatology chief Dr. Stephen E. Malawista, who passed away on Sept. 19 at age 79 in Hamden, Conn.


Malawista and his colleagues - Dr. Allen C. Steere and Dr. John A. Hardin -  announced in 1977 that they had discovered an infectious disease transmitted by ticks. In 1980, Malawista and Steere made an even more important discovery - that Lyme Disease, as it came to be called, could be treated with antibiotics.

Here are some facts about Malawista and the medical mystery he helped solve.

  • Malawista was accepted at Harvard at age 15 and eventually graduated magna cum laude. 
  • An estimated 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme Disease each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those cases, 96 percent are concentrated in a 13-state area in the Northeast and Midwest.
  • According to his New York Times obituary, Malawista and his team linked the ailment to ticks by noting that cases were 30 times more frequent on the east side of the Connecticut River, where more deer are located, than on the west side. Ticks feed and breed on deer.
  • According to medical historian Jonathan A. Edlow, Malawista and Steere originally believed incorrectly that Lyme Disease was caused by a virus. CDC researcher Willy Burgdorfer pinpointed the culprit as a bacterium in 1982, according to a history of Lyme Disease published in the Yale Journal of Biological Medicine.
  • According to medical historian Gerald Weisssmann, Malwista came up with the term "Lyme arthritis" to describe the ailment, which evolved into the name Lyme Disease.
  • Malawista received the Distinguished Investigator Award from the American College of Rheumatology in 1994.


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