Dr. Erich D. Ryll, a physician who investigated a mysterious outbreak of symptoms at a Sacramento area hospital as a pioneering expert on chronic fatigue syndrome, died Nov. 26 of complications from an intestinal illness, his family said. He was 93.
A former Army physician, Dr. Ryll opened a private practice in 1968 as an infectious disease specialist in Sacramento. He was chief of medicine at Mercy San Juan Hospital in late summer of 1975 when more than four dozen nurses became ill with acute symptoms, including severe leg pain, headaches, fatigue and nausea. The condition eventually spread to about 200 hospital workers and family members, according to news stories in The Sacramento Bee.
Mercy officials asked Dr. Ryll to investigate the outbreak, which also drew a state epidemiologist and an official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to the Carmichael hospital. Tests for viruses and toxins came back negative, leaving experts puzzled and in disagreement about a possible cause, including employee stress.
After scouring medical journal reports about similar clusters of cases in other countries, Dr. Ryll argued that the condition was caused by a virus that lies dormant in the body until activated by other factors. He treated more than 100 Mercy workers in one of the first Northern California outbreaks of what is now commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
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Because it is a complex disorder that cannot easily be diagnosed or explained by an underlying medical condition, chronic fatigue syndrome historically has faced a lack of understanding or familiarity in the medical community. Dr. Ryll treated many patients who found no answers or support from other physicians, his son Erich Jr. said. He testified on behalf of Mercy employees seeking workers’ compensation benefits, which hospital administrators opposed.
“That was his job,” his son said. “He was a highly ethical person, and he would never throw anyone under the bus for his own gain. He taught us as kids that even if it comes to a sacrifice to your own well-being, you have to do what’s right.”
A son of German immigrants, Dr. Ryll was born in 1921 in Lorain, Ohio. After serving in the Army in Morocco and Italy during World War II, he graduated from Valparaiso University and earned a master’s degree in microbiology and a medical degree from the University of Kansas.
He rejoined the Army in 1958, completed a research fellowship at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and worked as a physician and researcher. He left the military in 1967 and worked at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento.
Dr. Ryll, who retired from medicine in his mid-80s, was a fitness enthusiast and avid bicyclist. He founded the Physicians Cycling Group of Sacramento in 1974 and led rides from Sacramento through high passes in the the Sierra Nevada to Nevada and Yosemite National Park. He also sang in the Sacramento Symphony Masterworks Chorus and a Bach choir.
“He had a beautiful, rich bass voice,” his son said. “He sang all his life.”
Dr. Ryll was preceded in death by a daughter, Dorthea, and a son, Thomas. In addition to Erich Jr., he is survived by his wife of 72 years, Marjorie; a daughter, Eda Mathews; two sisters, Tabea and Gertrude Stephen-Hancko; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Monday at Town & Country Lutheran Church, 4049 Marconi Ave., Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Editor’s note: Previous online versions of this story incorrectly listed Tuesday as the day of Dr. Ryll’s memorial service. The service is Monday, Dec. 8. We regret the error.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.