Alan J. Magill, 61, died of a heart attack on Sept. 19, but Bill and Melinda Gates say his plan to eradicate malaria will lay the foundation for future progress.
In 2007, when Bill and Melinda Gates called for the eradication of malaria, many critics said it was an impossible — even ill-advised — goal.
Dr. Alan J. Magill helped change that perception.
As leader of the Gates Foundation’s malaria program since 2012, the former military medical officer crafted a road map for stamping out the mosquito-borne disease and garnered support from experts and organizations around the world.
Dr. Magill, 61, died of a heart attack Sept. 19 near his home in Woodway. But his plan will persevere, the Gateses said in a statement.
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“In the future, people will look back at what he did over the past few years and see it as the basis for eradicating malaria,” they said. “Alan’s legacy is simple but profound: He saved lives.”
Dr. Magill joined the foundation at a time when great progress was being made in reducing malaria’s toll across Africa and Asia through use of bed nets, quicker diagnosis and better treatment. But it was clear those measures alone would never be sufficient to wipe out a disease that still kills nearly half a million children every year, said Dr. Bruno Moonen, the foundation’s deputy director for malaria.
“The foundation realized they needed to revamp their strategy if they really wanted to go that step further,” Moonen said. “Alan came in with a clear vision for how he felt we needed to move forward to achieve that.”
His approach includes development of better diagnostics, to detect and treat silent infections before mosquitoes can spread the parasites to others. Eradication will also require what Dr. Magill called a “magic pill” that can kill all forms of the parasite with a single dose.
That’s a challenging problem, Moonen said, but Dr. Magill convinced the foundation to boost the basic research needed to achieve it. He also pushed hard for development of a vaccine that can interrupt the malaria cycle by blocking the spread of parasites from infected people via mosquito bites.
A native of Colorado, Dr. Magill was raised in Texas, where his father worked in the oil fields. He met his future wife, Janiine Babcock, when both were students at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The couple joined the Army after graduation, and their jobs took them around the world, including stints in Germany and Peru. It was in the Peruvian Amazon that Dr. Magill, who had worked on a wide range of infectious diseases, began to focus almost exclusively on malaria.
“I couldn’t imagine then that we would be talking today about a malaria-free world as a possibility,” he told The Lancet earlier this year.
Before his retirement from the Army, Dr. Magill helped develop the first rapid diagnostic test for malaria, Moonen said. He also led the military’s drug-development program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Throughout his career, Dr. Magill never lost sight of the human impact of disease, said Dr. Kent Campbell, director of the Malaria Center of Excellence at the Seattle nonprofit PATH.
“He was by training a clinician, so he brought that perspective, with the focus on individual patients as well as communities,” Campbell said.
Dr. Magill’s low-key, unassuming personality also helped him work with a wide range of people — a valuable skill for someone representing the world’s richest and potentially most intimidating foundation, Campbell added.
He was also willing to listen to people with different perspectives, including critics, Moonen said.
“During my last performance review, he told me, ‘Bruno, you need to become a better listener,’ and he was right.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Magill is survived by daughter Lara Magill and her husband, Jonathan Krynitsky; daughter Sarah Magill; and brother Donald Magill.