Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, William Taliaferro Close was the personal physician of President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. He was also the chief doctor of the army. When the President reportedly fled to France when Ebola threatened to spread across Africa like wildfire in 1976, Close remained to help contain the horrible disease. He was flying from Geneva to Zaire’s capital city of Kinshasa when he overhead a conversation between two men sitting near him and realized they were from the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta. The trio spent the rest of the flight discussing the outbreak, and by the time they landed, Close had an action plan.
He used his political influence to obtain proper equipment and effective protection for medical personnel and get them delivered to the affected areas. Though the military refused to go in, Close commandeered a Zairian Army plane to fly a team into Ebola Ground Zero, bringing much-needed supplies and advice. Through their work, the chain of Ebola transmission was broken by being vigilant about sterilizing equipment and isolating patients in their villages. Even so, 88% of the 318 cases identified during the 1976 outbreak ended up being fatal.
In many cases, the right gear would have prevented many of the Ebola-related deaths, even when it came to the 1995 outbreak in Kikwit. “The greatest need in Kikwit right now is for rubber aprons to protect the doctors and nurses, because the blood and vomit is soaking through their operating gowns,” he said at the time. Since the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, not having protective apparel was almost a death sentence for medical personnel.
In case you’re wondering, Glenn wasn’t there. When Ebola broke out in 1976, she was 29 and had already starred in several Broadway productions. Close left Africa and Mobutu Sese Seko in 1977 after realizing how corrupt the regime had become. He moved to Big Piney, Wyoming, to practice medicine until his death in 2009.