William E. “Bill” Collins, 84: Studied, worked on vaccines for malaria

Bill Collins did not consider mosquitoes the nuisance that most people would. The flying insects were central to his work at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he studied the disease malaria for more than two-thirds of his life.

Collins retired in July, but planned to work as a visiting researcher, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.

“He never wanted to retire,” said his son, William R. “Bill” Collins. “He really enjoyed what he did.”

William Erle Collins, known as Bill to most, of Chamblee died Saturday from complications of cancer. He was 84.

A memorial gathering is planned from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Marlo Country Club in Duluth. Fischer Funeral Care is in charge of cremation arrangements.

As a youth growing up in Lansing, Mich., Collins was always fascinated by insects, his son said. After high school he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Michigan State University, before going to Rutgers University and pursuing a doctorate in entomology.

“As a career, he thought he would work in entomology or become a college professor,” said his son, who lives in Suwanee. “But then one thing led to another and he ended up spending his life working on malaria research.”

Collins’ career began in the early 1950s, when he was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to the biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland. That experience led him to join the ranks of the NIH in the mid- to late ‘50s, where he met McWilson “Mac” Warren, another scientist.

“At that time malaria was not only a world issue, in terms of health, but he also saw it as a fascinating biological entity,” said Warren, who also worked with Collins at the CDC. “It always kept him interested and ready to go on for another day.”

Collins was known worldwide as an expert on malaria, the potentially fatal disease that infects hundreds of millions of people each year. He was infected twice from his lab work, he told the AJC this summer. While he described his work on malaria as exciting, he said he “didn’t enjoy (the infection) one bit.”

He added that while most of the known infections occur in Africa, there are around 1,500 reported cases in the U.S. each year.

“That’s not a lot of cases. But we can’t let our guard down,” he said in July. “If the disease breaks out, we’ll jump on it and control it.”

That aggressiveness was always present in Collins’ approach, said Warren, who has retired to New Hampshire.

“What characterized Bill more than anything else was his endless fascination to get to the next level in whatever he was investigating,” he said. “Therefore, he never left anything until he exhausted everything he could learn about that particular subject.”

For the past 25 years or so, Collins worked on malaria vaccines. He said vaccines for the disease, which he described as the “best way to control any disease,” are in the works.

“[Vaccines are] not on the horizon, but [they] will happen,” he said. “We have laid the groundwork.”

In addition to his son, Collins is survived by his wife of 57 years, Janet Johnson Collins of Chamblee; daughter, Sheila Sylvan of Marietta; and two grandchildren.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.