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Former Dean Fred Murphy discusses the initial discovery of Ebola in the 1970s

November 17, 2014

Dr. Michael Wilkes, Director of Global Health at the UC Davis Health System, is also an award-winning journalist. He recently interviewed former SVM Dean Fred Murphy about the discovery and identification of the Ebola virus and his involvement at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1970s. Dr. Murphy, now a professor of pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has led research on deadly viruses, including Marburg and Ebola. As director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, he was the first veterinarian to hold such a high-ranking position in the CDC.

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Dr. Murphy works on inactivated fixed tissues prepared for electron microscopy following the discovery of Ebola virus in 1976.

 

Background on Dr. Fred Murphy:

Dr. Murphy earned his PhD from UC Davis in 1964 and received the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Alumni Achievement Award in 1989. Distinguished Professor of Virology and Dean Emeritus of the School of Veterinary Medicine, he was the sole veterinarian elected in 1999 to the Institute of Medicine, the medical science arm of the National Academy of Sciences. As dean from 1991-1996, Murphy guided reorganization of the school's departments and established centers of excellence within the school to encourage faculty collaboration based on species interests and specific disciplines.

Murphy also received the Penn Vet World Leadership Award in 2009, a prize that comes with $100,000 in unrestricted funding. (The award is underwritten by the Vernon and Shirley Hill Foundation.) Dr. Alan Kelly, dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine, praised Murphy for his leadership at the CDC, which he said opened new paths for other veterinarians and helped gain public recognition for veterinary medicine's contributions.

Murphy described his role at the CDC as "a great opportunity to show how the veterinary profession is tightly linked with the other health professions, especially in the world of prevention and control of infectious diseases."

Murphy considers himself very lucky in the course of his career. He was drafted into the Army Veterinary Corps the day after graduating from Cornell's veterinary college in 1959. He was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he was responsible for rabies diagnosis on military bases in five states at a time when human exposure to rabies was much more common.

After leaving the Army in 1961 and spending a month trying to figure out what to do with his life, Murphy, his wife, and their infant son moved to California, where he pursued a doctorate in comparative pathology at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He was writing his thesis when he received a call from Telford Work, M.D., who was then head of the virology department at the CDC.Murphy was hired as the chief of the Viral Pathology Branch, which he had to build from scratch. He said scientists and medical professionals in the branch were united by the motive of trying to prevent and control disease.

"It wasn't just to study diseases," Murphy said. "It was to do something about them."

Not long after he arrived, a viral outbreak in 1967 caused seven deaths and 23 severe illnesses in Germany and Yugoslavia. German virologists made the primary discovery of the filovirus that would become known as Marburg. Murphy was one of three CDC scientists who studied the virus in a temporary containment laboratory set up within an 18-wheeler trailer in the parking lot behind the CDC virology building in Atlanta. The biocontainment in the trailer was not to today's standards for handling Marburg virus, but only three experienced virologists—Dr. Robert Kissling, Roslyn Robinson, PhD, and Dr. Murphy—were allowed inside.

"We did lots of basic virus characterization work, complementing the work of the German virologists," Murphy said.

The group developed reagents for future diagnostics and published two papers.His experience with Marburg prepared him for his work in 1976, when people began dying of a strange disease in what was then Zaire (now, the Congo). The filovirus isolated from patients would become known as Ebola.

"I think my veterinary training was key to how to be careful," Murphy said.

He described preparation for performing surgery as the reverse of gowning, gloving, and masking for working with dangerous pathogens.

"Instead of having to maintain sterility and a sterile operating area on the way in, you have to be very careful on the way out," Murphy said.

Though he has spent half his career as an administrator, Murphy said his contributions toward infectious disease sciences and toward mentoring the next generation give him the most satisfaction.

Much of this article was adapted from a JAVMA News article, May 2009.

NYTimes article from August 2014 “A Witness to Ebola’s Discovery”