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Science Alumni Profile: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Expert Paul Cheney '69

posted on 11/29/2009

by Mary Ellen Collins

Dr. Paul Cheney earned his Bachelor's degree in Physics from Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in 1969. He is the 2009 recipient of the Suzanne Armacost Alumni Medal .

Paul Cheney, M.D., an international authority on chronic fatigue syndrome, began his circuitous route to a medical career by majoring in physics at Eckerd. Although he had planned to go to Georgia Tech to become an engineer, his dad recommended starting with a foundation at a liberal arts college.

Cheney took some tests to help identify colleges that would be a good match for him, and the results revealed three schools to consider: the University of Tennessee; Sewanee: University of the South; and what Cheney calls "a strange new school," then known as Florida Presbyterian College.

"I visited Eckerd and loved it. There was excitement about a new way of learning. It wasn't about grading your level of performance, but about whether there was creativity in your work. And they had a winter term when you could study anything you wanted in-depth. It was so different from the more rigid liberal arts schools."

He enrolled at Eckerd and planned to transfer to Georgia Tech for engineering after three years, but a sophomore physics class changed his mind.

"The professor was doing a satellite re-entry calculation and I was mesmerized. I thought, 'Wow. This is so cool.' By junior year, I was majoring in Physics and I began to envision myself as a physicist." Cheney went to Duke University for graduate school and considered becoming a physics professor, but the harsh reality of the market for teachers in that field prompted a change in direction.

"I was very aware of the excitement within the medical community at Duke and all the money they had for research, so I decided to go to medical school."

Undaunted by the fact that he didn't have the necessary undergraduate requirements, he completed those courses at Duke and UNC while also completing his Ph.D. in Physics. He entered Emory University Medical School with plans to become a medical scientist.

Financial constraints prompted him to join the Air Force, which enabled him to finish his medical degree. He fulfilled his military obligation by serving as the chief of medicine at the Mountain Home Air Force Base Hospital in Idaho.

In 1983 he joined another physician in an internal medicine practice in Lake Tahoe, where they saw their first case of what turned out to be chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). As sporadic cases cropped up across the country, Cheney and his partner had a local epidemic - 250 cases of the mystery disease known as "adult mono."

The two doctors worked on an extensive research effort with the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the Harvard University School of Medicine; and Cheney was one of the leading authors of a landmark paper about the disease published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. That launched his career as an authority on the research and treatment of the disease.

Cheney joined a large North Carolina practice as an internist, and within a year, he was treating only CFS patients. This led him to start The Cheney Clinic, now located in Asheville, where he has been dedicated to the treatment of CFS since 1990. Dr. Cheney has pioneered clinical research; published and lectured extensively; and seen more than 8,000 CFS sufferers from 48 states and 24 foreign countries.

A 1999 recipient of Eckerd's Kadel Medal for Outstanding Career Achievement, Cheney credits Eckerd for nurturing the qualities that helped a would-be engineer become a groundbreaking medical researcher and clinician.

"I've always loved Eckerd. I was a risk taker, and going to a school with a strange curriculum fit into the way I was constructed. Doctors and creative people are risk-takers, and Eckerd fed my creative mind because they valued creativity. It was an idyllic place that gave me a chance to grow and become who I was. I wasn't a big fish in a small pond. I was a regular fish in a very unusual pond, and I got to grow to be a big fish."

This feature is the fourth of a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Previous Science Profiles:
Harry Johns
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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