History of Lyme disease

Lyme disease as a distinct ailment was first defined by a team led by Dr. Steven Malawista, chief of rheumatology at the Yale School of Medicine, and his postdoctoral fellow Allen C. Steere.

In 1975 two mothers living in Old Lyme, on the east side of the Connecticut River, whose children had fallen ill with fever, aches and swollen joints, independently refused to accept a vague diagnosis of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from the doctors and began contacting other mothers in the area. On one street one mother found four children with similar symptoms. Convinced that the disease must be caused by an infective agent, they contacted health officials and asked them to investigate.

Dr. Malawista
Dr. Steven Malawista

The matter was referred to a team under Malawista and Steere who began painstakingly reviewing cases of the then unnamed disease. Comparing the incidence of the illness on the east and west sides of the Connecticut River, they found that cases were 30 times more frequent on the east side, where there was a greater population of deer and deer ticks. In the adjacent towns of Lyme, Old Lyme and East Haddam, they counted 51 cases, a rate about 100 times the normal incidence of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Moreover they noticed that most victims of the disease lived in wooded areas and that the cases had occurred, almost exclusively, in the summer months — an indication that it could be an insect-borne disease.

In an article in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism in January 1977, the scientific team reported on a disease they named Lyme arthritis (later renamed Lyme disease); six months later they published another article suggesting that antibiotics could help patients affected by this disease.

But the Yale researchers were wrong in their initial judgment that the disease is caused by a virus. As an unbiased clinician and researcher, Dr. Malawista recognized that Lyme disease can stay dormant for many years before manifesting as a clinically relevant disease.


Willy Burgdorfer
Dr. Willy Burgdorfer

However, it was Dr. Willy Burgdorfer who discovered the causative agent of Lyme disease.

In the early 1980s, Burgdorfer, an entomologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, Montana, was analyzing the guts of deer ticks that were suspected to have caused an outbreak of spotted fever on Long Island when he noticed, through his microscope, some corkscrew-like bacteria called spirochetes. Though he had not been working on Lyme disease, he realized that spirochete bacteria might also be playing a role in causing the disease. In 1982, when this was proven, he and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Science.

The bacterium that causes the disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, was named after him.