AS CHIEF DOCTOR OF THE CONGOLESE army, Bill Close was used to courting danger. One morning back in 1967 he was ordered to fly to a remote region of Zaire—then the Congo—to perform a medical checkup on a battalion of soldiers. As he landed his small plane on a dirt strip near Lake Tanganyika, the soldiers charged out of the high grass, brandishing guns and accusing him of being an enemy mercenary. “Luckily, the night before, my wife had sewn red crosses on my shirt,” chuckles Close. “I showed them my case full of medicine and kept repeating, ‘Monganga, monganga [doctor, doctor].’ Finally they let me do what I was there to do.”
Sitting on the patio of his ranch-style house in Big Piney, Wyo. (pop. 454), the 71-year-old father of actress Glenn Close relishes such reminiscences of his 16-year career as a doctor in Africa’s “hot zone.” In 1976, Close played a pivotal role during the first known outbreak of the terrifying Ebola fever. Close was working in Zaire when epidemiologists arrived to battle the deadly virus—which had appeared in the village of Yambuku, 1,200 miles from the capital city of Kinshasa—only to run into a wall of confusion and inefficiency. Close became logistics chief of the operation, commandeering supplies and air transport from government and industry. “Here were people of various nationalities and tribes facing an extraordinarily frightening situation,” he recalls. “We didn’t know at the time what the organism was or how it was transmitted. The thing that struck me was the quiet heroism of the people. It was a story that needed to be told.”
Now Close has told it. In a gripping new novel, Ebola, he chronicles the courage of the doctors, nuns, priests and native healers who battled the virus, which killed about 400 people. After Close left Zaire later that year, he was consumed by the drama he had witnessed. Encouraged by daughter Glenn, he returned with her and a screenwriter in 1987 to do research for a possible film. When the movie project later fell through, Close turned to fiction. “He novelized the story,” says Glenn, “but I thought it would have been great if he had written it as it happened.”
The same could be said about her father’s life story. Born in Greenwich, Conn., he is descended from ancestors who lobbed firebombs at British frigates during the American Revolution. He and his twin brother, Edward—now a retired corporate lawyer—were reared in Paris, where their father, Edward Sr., was director of the American Hospital. Close entered Harvard in 1941, dropping out two years later to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. By then he had married his childhood sweetheart, Bettine “Tine” Moore. Finishing college after the war, he graduated from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. But instead of setting up a practice, Close joined a missionary group, Moral Re-Armament.
In 1960 he arrived to work in the Congo. The challenges of Third World medicine intrigued Close, and four months later he become director of Kinshasa’s 2,000-bed General Hospital. The working conditions were primitive. “I sometimes did surgery with instruments that weren’t sterile,” he says. “They were washed in alcohol, soap and water; it was the best we could do.”
At one point Close was summoned to remove a fish bone from the throat of then army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu’s aunt. Mobutu took a liking to him and named him the army’s head doctor in 1961. When Mobutu seized power four years later in a CIA-backed coup, Close became his personal physician, continuing to help develop a medical infrastructure for the country. During that period, Close saw little of his family. Though Tine had joined him in Zaire, she spent much of her time shuttling back and forth to Switzerland and the U.S., where the couple’s four children, Tina, Glenn, Sandy and Jessie, were in boarding school and college. Glenn admits the separations were “very hard.” What made it bearable, she says, “was the knowledge that important work was being done.”
But by 1976 corruption had grown so rampant in Zaire that Close had become disillusioned about effecting change. He and Tine decided to move to Wyoming, where he become a country doctor. Semiretired since 1986, Close has never been busier. At work on several books, he fishes, skis and visits his children, all of whom live in the West except Glenn, who visits once a year. Still absorbed by Africa, he often helps out in crises. (During the Ebola outbreak in May, he was a liaison between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Zairean government.) Nevertheless, Close finds that caring for patients—which he does in a clinic two days a week—is the best medicine. There’s just one procedure that makes the veteran doctor squeamish. “I’m terrible at deliveries,” he says. “I faint.”
GABRIELLE SAVERI in Big Piney