The life of Dr. William Close

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MARCO WERMAN: Doctor William Close died last month in Wyoming. He was 84. Dr. Close was the father of actress Glenn Close, but what grabbed our attention was his work in Zaire, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dr. Close was there from 1960 until 1977. He went first as part of a missionary group but eventually became personal physician to the country's President. In 1976, Dr. Close helped to stop the first Ebola epidemic in Zaire. Doctor Joel Breman was part of a team sent to Zaire that year for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. He remembers meeting Bill Close on the flight to Kinshasa.

JOEL BREMAN: Bill was sitting next to us, and he said, ?Hey. You guys going to investigate the epidemic?? We said, ?Yeah. Who are you?? And the rest is history.

WERMAN: And at the time, who was he?

BREMAN: He was the doctor to the President Mobutu. He was the director of Mamiyamu Hospital, the largest hospital in Zaire and one of the largest, if not the largest, in Africa. And he had influence far beyond those posts.

WERMAN: And Mr. Mobutu, of course, was Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of ex-Zaire at the time.

BREMAN: Right.

WERMAN: That seems in and of itself, to be the personal doctor, personal physician to the President seems quite an achievement.

BREMAN: It was incredible in that while we were focused entirely on what the epidemic was all about and how to contain it, the issues related to communications, logistics, and knowing the right people. And he had been a patriot and mentor to the man, Dr. Inguete Kinkala, who was the Minister of Health at the time. So upon arrival we met with all these people almost immediately, and things went about as smoothly as possible in this maelstrom of fear.

WERMAN: And specifically, how do you think Dr. Close's own proximity to the executive in then-Zaire assisted you in the field and getting the Ebola outbreak under control?

BREMAN: Well, it was absolutely essential. Bill was a magnetic personality who people listened to. He managed by objective laser-like focus and we divided ourselves into a variety of disciplines. Bill was a highly skilled physician and surgeon. He became Chief of Logistics and Administration.

WERMAN: I mean, it's interesting as the personal physician to Mobutu Sese Seko. I mean, his regime was the height of what's now known as kleptocracy ? you know, enriching yourself at the expense of the population. Did Dr. Close have any trouble reconciling his own desire to help the people in ex-Zaire and his work next to Mr. Mobutu, you know, Mr. Mobutu's own seeming self-centered behavior?

BREMAN: That's an important question, and we did talk about that a few times. The going title of Bill's last book which came out in English, ?Beyond the Storm,? had a preliminary title of ?Dictator's Doctor? ? which I loved, absolutely loved. One of the major reasons Bill left Africa in '77 was that he couldn't take it anymore, in terms of dealing with a corrupt regime. And, you know, while he kept the hospital at a high level and took care of patients, I think that was a conflict for him. And so he left at the right time.

WERMAN: He was clearly somebody who had a lot of passion for his work. Do you have any stories of just how driven he was?

BREMAN: Yeah. The stories I have relate to his calling me. I've worked on a number of different tropical diseases, and most recently on Malaria. He knows he can call me day or night and has done that in regard to making sure I can help care for patients, guide friends. Also, he's written several books ? doctor's stories. He's written the best book on Ebola, by the way, and it's called ?Ebola.? Best book I know. He really had a sense of what people needed. Everyone he treated with dignity and he was a problem-solver. So that's how I remember him.

WERMAN: Dr. Joel Breman, senior scientific advisor at the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

BREMAN: Okay. Very good. And all the best on your program.

WERMAN: Also, from another chapter of history, from the section on South and Central Asia, in the ?How we got here? podcast this week, The World's Jeb Sharp explores the historical significance of the Khyber Pass. That's at theworld.org.