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

WASHINGTON — In preparing for what would become his life’s work, Wayne 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.


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

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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. He was 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.

‘‘The work Wayne did was absolutely essential and helped change science in amazing ways,’’ said Aileen 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, 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.

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.