To The Editor:
It was with sadness that I read of Walter Ashley’s death, although all of us who knew him realized that his time was running out. His contributions to tick-borne disease research on the Vineyard are greatly underappreciated.
I met Walter 15 years ago when my laboratory first started working on the pneumonic tularemia outbreak. By virtue of having almost all of the Island landscapers visit him on a regular basis, CDC commandeered his business and used it as a center of operations, even trying to get Connie, Walter’s wife, to make phone calls for their case control study. I was told by several friends that if I wanted to learn anything about landscapers, I too would have to go have a chat with Walter and Connie. Despite our ivory tower backgrounds (we were then at Harvard), my wife, Heidi, and I happened to prefer to be field biologists who trapped mice and skunks and looked the part … I was dirty, unshaven, and wearing my NRA cap when I first met him. That amused Walter no end — two Harvard PhDs who looked like landscapers and collected ticks and roadkill. When it turned out that politically we were on the same page, his gruff, “what do you want?” greeting when he saw us in the door each month turned into a more bemused look of curiosity about the crazy stuff that we were doing. I quickly made it a point to go over to C&W every single research trip I made, spending as much time as I could hanging out and distracting him from what he was supposed to be doing.
In the early days of the pneumonic tularemia outbreak, Walter supplied us with scrapings of the muck under lawn mowers that were brought in by his clients. The analysis of those samples (all negative), and the fact that he himself never got tularemia even with constant handling of Islanders’ landscaping equipment, told me that the bacteria were not all over the Island and certainly not universally risky to landscapers. He helped us organize a blood survey of landscapers, graciously allowing us to sit in front of his business office taking blood as everyone came by to drop off equipment or just plain visit.
We enrolled 180 people in that study, and it showed that exposure to tularemia was just about as common as it was to Lyme disease in the landscapers; and, that there were individuals who had never been diagnosed because they never got sick but nonetheless had evidence of past infection. This was proof that tularemia was not necessarily an always-dangerous disease with dire consequences. Walter served as our ears on the Island, and we usually heard about new tularemia cases from him as well as where they had worked or what they had been doing, often before the Department of Public Health had such information.
Of equal, if not greater value in terms of public health practice, was picking his brain about deer on the Vineyard, and the politics behind deer hunting. I am known as the nation’s biggest advocate of reducing deer herds to control Lyme disease and wanted to stimulate the powers that be on the Vineyard to move in that direction. I quickly realized through my conversations with Walter what the priorities are for the Vineyard, and what might be possible regarding deer reduction there. Of particular importance was access to properties that are off-limits to hunting, as well as expanded opportunities to share venison because responsible hunters will not take more animals than they can use. He questioned the prevailing estimates of deer density and pointed to the fact that deer were in hot spots, hence an Island-wide effort was likely to be pointless as well as politically difficult. These comments of his will ultimately factor into the recommendations of the MV Tick Borne Disease Initiative for reducing the burden of Lyme disease on the Vineyard.
Even if the deer and fish won’t miss Walter, I certainly will. I learned a lot from him.
Sam Telford ScD
Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health