If only government and the beef industry had paid more attention to Dr. Riley, you likely would not be reading this blog.

According to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Lee W. Riley, a leader in the decolonization of global health and pioneer in molecular epidemiology, died October 19, 2022, at the age of 73 in Berkeley, California, following a brief illness.

At the time of his death, Riley was professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases and chair of the Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology Division at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, as well as director of the Global Health Equity Scholars Program.

Riley’s expansive research interests ranged from “slum” health to tuberculosis and from food borne pathogens—including seminal work on E. coli— to parasitic diseases. However, his true legacy is his generous mentorship of thousands of aspiring scientists and public health experts in the United States and around the globe. Their ongoing work serves as a testiment to Riley’s ability to inspire and influence his students and collaborators.

After completing a residency in internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Riley joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in 1981 on a two year fellowship as an investigator in the Epidemic Intelligence Service. While there, he met Dr. Arthur Reingold, his long-time collaborator and future colleague at UC Berkeley School of Public Health and traveled to study disease outbreaks in several countries, including Brazil.

Tasked to do epidemiological fieldwork on enteric disease outbreaks—such as listeria, salmonella, and E. coli—Riley became interested in taking a molecular approach to epidemiology.  He authored a seminal study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing for the first time that a specific kind of bloody diarrhea that appeared in Oregon and Michigan in 1982 was caused by a novel bacterium. The major foodborne pathogen, called E. coli O157:H7, sickens and can kill people who eat undercooked beef.  Riley traced the source of the outbreak through “Food Chain A”: McDonald’s restaurants in both states.

“His work really changed the whole approach to preventing this infection by not allowing the sale of undercooked hamburgers,” said Reingold. “This really made Lee’s career.”

I met Dr. Riley in early 1993 while first learning about E. coli O157:H7 during the early days of the Jack in the Box E. coli Outbreak that sickened over 650, many developing acute kidney failure and killing 4 children. I had stumbled across the article “Hemorrhagic Colitis Associated with a Rare Escherichia coli Serotype,” and reached out to Dr. Riley convinced that Jack in the Box was in fact the “Food Chain A.” He was kind enough to set me straight – “Food Chain A” – was in fact McDonald’s. We talked about the likely origins of E. coli O157:H7 in the CAFOs in the US and the failure of the government and meat industry to take E. coli’s risk in ground meat seriously enough to avoid the 1992/1993 catastrophe.

I am reminded of the the food industries and governments failures to head warnings in nearly every outbreak that I hear about nearly every day. Losing great scientists like Dr. Riley is a loss for us all.