This page has been archived and is no longer updated

November 05, 2014 | By:  Julia Paoli
Aa Aa Aa

The Scientist Who Discovered Ebola

The Ebola Outbreak is a continuing problem in West Africa. Thousands have perished from Ebola while the region as a whole has experienced economic difficulties as a result of the outbreak. With all the media coverage and focus on the Ebola Virus, some may wonder who actually discovered it. In 1976 Dr. Peter Piot of Belgium and his colleagues were the first people to identify Ebola.

Dr. Piot had just graduated from medical school and was training to be a clinical microbiologist in 1976. While working in a lab at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, Piot received a cheap plastic thermos containing two vials of blood and some melted ice. Also inside was a handwritten note from a Belgian doctor based in Zaire (presently the Democratic Republic of Congo). The note explained that the blood had been taken from a Belgian nun working in Zaire. She and two hundred others in a remote region of Zaire had become seriously sick with a mysterious illness. The thermos had been flown on a commercial flight from Zaire's capital city in one of the passenger's carry-on bags! Upon opening the thermos, Piot and his colleagues were greeted with a slushy mix of melted ice and blood. Of the two vials only one had remained intact while the other had shattered en route.

Piot and his team suspected the unknown illness to be yellow fever. The Institute of Tropical Medicine was qualified to handle yellow fever. Little did they know that the as yet to be named Ebola virus was lurking inside the thermos. In those days biosafety protocols were not as strict as they are today. Wearing only thin latex gloves, the scientists removed a sample of blood from the undamaged vial and carried out standard tests on it. The blood sample was screened for known microbes, yellow fever, and several hemorrhagic-fever viruses such as Lassa, Marburg, and dengue. None of potential microbes or viruses were found in the blood. Piot also injected mice with samples of the nun's blood. After a weeks time all of the mice were dead.

When the scientists examined the blood under a microscope they were surprised by what they saw. "We saw a gigantic worm like structure- gigantic by viral standards," explains Piot. The only other known virus that was of similar size and shape was Marburg virus. Marburg had first appeared in 1967 when 31 laboratory workers became sick with hemorrhagic fever after coming into contact with infected monkeys. In 1976 only three facilities outside of the Soviet Union were qualified to deal with fatal viruses safely: Porton Down near London, Fort Detrick in Maryland, and what is now the CDC in Atlanta. The World Health Organization ordered the Belgian scientists to send their blood samples to the CDC lab, the world's reference center for hemorrhagic viruses at the time. After analysing the virus, the CDC confirmed that the sample contained a brand new hemorrhagic virus. Dr. Piot says that he experienced a feeling of "incredible excitement" with the discovery of Ebola.

Shortly after the CDC's revelation, Piot and several other Belgian scientists were on their way to Zaire. Piot travelled to the epicenter of the outbreak in rural Zaire where he met up with an international group of scientists. "I wasn't scared," says Piot in reference to his work done in Zaire. "The excitement of discovery and wanting to stop the epidemic was driving everything." The group of scientists decided

that they needed a name for the virus that they were tracking down. Some wanted the name Yambuku after the village where the virus first appeared. However, there was worry that naming a deadly virus after a town would attach a stigma to that town. Instead the scientists looked to a map of the affected region. They chose to name the virus after the river closest to the village of Yambuku, the Ebola River. The name has stuck ever since.

While researching Ebola in Zaire, the scientists first tried to determine how the virus was spread between people. They began to ask questions and map out where infected people had come from. After analyzing the data, the scientists realized that the cases clustered around the local hospital and that more women than men became ill. The illness particularly affected women in the 18 to 30 age group who were pregnant. It turned out that the local hospital had been reusing soiled needles and syringes which in turn caused the virus to spread amongst the villagers. In addition, the scientists discovered that people were contracting the virus after coming in contact with bodies at funerals. After discovering how the virus was transmitted, the scientists' next mission was to stop Ebola's spread. The scientists went from village to village quarantining infected persons. Those who had been in contact with a sick person were also quarantined and villagers were instructed on how to safely bury those who had died from Ebola. The scientists' containment efforts were successful. The outbreak concluded although not before the death of 300 people.

In retrospect, Dr. Piot says that he was "lucky not to get infected, not only in the laboratory but later on when I was drawing blood from patients and touching them." Following his work with Ebola, Dr. Piot conducted research on the AIDS epidemic in Africa and later became the founding executive director of UNIAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Dr. Piot is currently the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

To find out more information on Dr. Piot and his research check out his website!


Brown, R. "The virus detective who discovered Ebola in 1976." BBC. July 17, 2014.

Altman, L. "There Before Ebola Had a Name." The New York Times. October 6, 2014.

Loria, K. "Scientists Who Discovered Ebola Almost Caused A Disaster: 'It Makes Me Wince Just To Think Of It'." Business Insider. Aug 21, 2014.

Gholipour, B. "How Ebola Got Its Name." Livescience. October 9, 2014.


Pieter Morlion (via Wikimedia Commons).

CDC Global (via Flickr).

0 Comment
Blogger Profiles
Recent Posts

« Prev Next »

Connect Send a message

Scitable by Nature Education Nature Education Home Learn More About Faculty Page Students Page Feedback