Yellow fever’s future met its match on September 13, 1851 in the form of a baby named Walter Reed who was born in Gloucester County, Virginia. Though it would be several years before the battle ensued, the countdown had begun.
The youngest of five children, Walter’s father was a pastor whose career carried him to a variety of parishes. He eventually settled the family in Charlottesville within close proximity to the University of Virginia. One of Walter’s older brothers began to tutor the youth and as a teenager, Walter was enrolled in the university. At the age of 17, Walter received his bachelor’s degree and on July 1, 1869, earned the title “medical doctor”. To date, he remains the youngest graduate in the medical school’s history.
Normally when one studies to be a doctor, medical school itself is a one-time thing, with refresher courses used to stay abreast of what is going on. Apparently Dr. Reed enjoyed medical school so much, he decided to have a second go at it in a new location – this time at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City. This course of study required one year for him to complete it.
In 1873, Dr. Reed held the position of assistant sanitary officer for the Board of Health in Brooklyn. This experience served to spark his interest in public health, while at the same time, incubating a strong dislike in urban living. Writing to his fiancée, Reed stated, “I have been unable to discover the great advantages of living in metropolitan cities, except it be in the ‘wear and tear’.” The Army soon provided him the relief he sought for a different locale.
Reed underwent a 30-hour exam on February 8, 1875 prior to being admitted to the U.S. Army Medical Corps. One of the questions on the test addressed an important medical issue of his day – yellow fever. At the time, the disease was prevalent in Cuba, specifically Havana, and had for years plagued the Deep South of the United States. In his answer, Reed stated yellow fever was likely spread either by germs which clung to clothing of a ship’s passengers or the cargo itself; or by someone already infected with the disease transmitting it to others. Following successful completion of the exam, Dr. Reed received a commission into the Army on July 2, 1875.
While an Army doctor, Reed was stationed at several remote outposts in a variety of states; among them Nebraska and Arizona. Most of the time, he was the only doctor within a 200-mile radius. During these years, his wife bore two children, no doubt delivered by their father. After 15 years of Army service, Dr. Reed chose a different route. This new career path would take him to Cuba, where he would encounter and learn to fight the disease he had confronted on his Army exam years before; but not before returning to school.
In 1893, Dr. Reed left his last station in the west, returning east and joining the faculty at the Army Medical School in Washington, D.C. He received a promotion to major and became a professor of clinical and sanitary microscopy. In this capacity, he began to research a number of diseases; among them cholera, malaria, typhoid and yellow fever. In 1896, he went to Key West, Florida to study an outbreak of smallpox and traveled throughout the southeastern states to study typhoid from 1898-99.
During the years of the Spanish-American War, more American soldiers had died from yellow fever, malaria and other diseases than from combat. Yellow fever continued to plague both Cubans and the American occupation force following the war; thus Army Surgeon General George M. Sternberg appointed a commission in 1900 to investigate the cause of the disease and how to prevent its occurrence.
Dr. Reed and his staff arrived in Havana during the latter part of June 1900. Twenty years prior to Reed’s arrival, Cuban physician Carlos Finlay had discovered mosquitoes were the culprits that transmitted the parasite responsible for yellow fever – specifically female Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, as opposed to the human-to-human contact some had previously felt to be the cause. In an effort to confirm Dr. Finlay’s discovery and also disprove both the bacterial theory and direct contact as being the cause for spreading of the disease, volunteer soldiers wore the soiled clothing that belonged to infected patients for a period of time.
Reed and his team were later able to systematically demonstrate mosquitoes only picked up the yellow fever virus if they fed on a person during the first three days of infection. Following several days’ incubation, the mosquitoes would then be able to infect another human through a bite.
Maj. Reed and his staff of military medics now began working with Dr. Finlay in an effort to develop treatment options based on Finlay’s research, in addition to creating a number of measures for mosquito-control to minimize the risk of infection. To accomplish this, upwards of 24 members of Reed’s research staff infected themselves with the parasite for the sake of experiment.
When Cuba’s military governor, Major General Leonard Wood learned of the findings by Dr. Reed’s commission, he authorized Major William C. Gorgas, the Army’s chief sanitation officer, to begin an experimental program of inoculations. This was soon cancelled, however, due to the fact many of the volunteers died.
The next course of action was to eradicate Havana’s mosquito population. The first thing Gorgas did was to isolate all yellow fever patients behind screens in an effort to prevent mosquitoes from feeding on them and contracting the virus. Next, each building in Havana was to be fumigated and bodies of water identified where mosquitoes might breed. These sources were either screened or drained, and in some cases, oil was spread on the surface. Their efforts bore a great deal of fruit as cases of yellow fever fell drastically; so much so that by 1902, there were no reported cases. Their efforts in eradicating yellow fever also resulted in the number of malaria deaths decreasing as well.
Dr. Reed was later awarded honorary degrees from both Harvard University and the University of Michigan. The Secretary of War made note in his annual report he would recommend to President Theodore Roosevelt that Dr. Reed be promoted to the rank of colonel and named assistant surgeon general. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The good doctor’s work served to save untold numbers of lives, but he could not save his own. In November 1902, Dr. Reed fell ill and was later admitted to the hospital. On November 23rd, he died of what was later diagnosed as peritonitis resulting for a ruptured appendix. He was 51 years old.
The public health awareness developed by Dr. Reed formed the blueprint for today’s programs. Not only did his research save an untold number of lives, it also saved the Panama Canal; which likely would have never been built without his medical breakthroughs. Reed’s efforts on yellow fever became the forerunner of both biomedicine and epidemiology.
Dr. Walter Reed is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave marker reads, “He gave to man control of that dreadful scourge, yellow fever.” In 1909, the Army’s newest hospital was named the Walter Reed Army Medical Center; fitting recognition for an Army doctor who helped so many. In 2011, it joined services with Bethesda Naval Hospital to become the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
– – – – –
“It has been permitted to me and my assistants to lift the impenetrable veil that has surrounded the causation of this most dreadful pest of humanity and to put it on a rational and scientific basis. . . . The prayer that has been mine for 20 or more years, that I might be permitted in some way or sometime to do something to alleviate human suffering has been answered!” Dr. Walter Reed
– – – – –
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your Facebook page and subscribe to my site. Thank you.