Dr. Walter Reed and the Eradication of Yellow Fever
Walter Reed. Chances are, you are familiar with his name only because you have heard of the major army medical center named after him or maybe you have heard of his name in general references related to yellow fever. Either way, there is so much more to this humble, hard-working man than most know. He wore many hats, and husband, father, military officer, scientist, and doctor are just a few. Some of his scientific achievements are benefiting humanity today. To truly understand the depth of accomplishment by Dr. Walter Reed, you must first value the scourge he helped unravel: yellow fever.
Yellow fever had been a mystery since the fifteenth century, when its first cases were documented; some even believe that yellow fever was the cause of death for many of Christopher Columbus’s men. It affected the people of the United States annually. Initially, more people living in the southern states were impacted, but as railroad and steamboat transportation flourished, this disease began to pop up in more northern areas. People knew what time of the year yellow fever was likely to emerge, during what temperature and weather conditions, and in what part of the United States, but no one could discover the missing links of how or why. With the limited medical knowledge of that period of time and the patterns of yellow fever striking, scientists were perplexed as they could not figure out the illness. Meanwhile, thousands of lives were lost to the mysterious illness. However, the long reign of panic from this illness was about to end.
Our story begins in a small, modest parsonage in Virginia. In just a two-bedroom home, the youngest of five children, Walter Reed, was born on September 13, 1851, in Gloucester County to Lemuel Sutton Reed and Pharaba White. Throughout Walter’s childhood, he spent much time moving due to his father’s career as a Methodist minister. The family resided in several communities in North Carolina and Virginia. Shortly after the Civil War, Walter’s family settled in Charlottesville, Virginia. Living in Charlottesville during this time had been at the request of Lemuel Reed, so that his sons could begin more formal studies.
At 16, Walter began school at the nearby University of Virginia. With hard work and conviction, Walter passed all of his exams before his 18th birthday. He received his Doctor of Medicine in 1869 and remains the youngest person to graduate from the University of Virginia Medical School to this day.
After his graduation, Walter still desired further study in the medical profession so he moved to New York to study at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College. There he would earn a second degree. For several years, Walter Reed interned in New York in several different hospitals. His young age, compassionate heart, and sharp mind provided him many different opportunities. These valuable opportunities would help him gain much needed experience as he began to define the direction he wanted his medical career to go.
During a series of visits home to see his family, who were then living in Murfreesboro, Virginia, Walter Reed met a very special person, Emilie Lawrence. When it became apparent to him that he would one day marry Emilie, Walter felt that he must find consistent work to sustain his future wife and a family. Walter was ready for a life outside of the large metropolis. His solution to achieving his desires was to join the Army Medical Corps. He passed the examinations and on June 26, 1875, he was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the United States Army.
His first duty station was at Willet’s Point in New York. Meanwhile, back in Murfreesboro, Emilie Lawrence was busy planning their wedding. On April 26, Walter and Emilie were married in Murfreesboro. No one, including themselves, could have imagined the life and travels they were getting ready to embark on!
In 1876, their first duty station sent them to Fort Lowell, Arizona. At times, he was the only physician in over 200 miles. He was now responsible for providing care to soldiers, dependents, civilians, and Indians. If someone needed medical help in the area, they went to Dr. Reed. Due to the frontier not being civilized, medical supplies and equipment were not readily available. He often had few supplies and primitive instruments as he attempted to give his varied patients the very best care possible.
Over the next decade, Walter Reed was sent to many different garrison posts around Arizona, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Alabama. Many of the posts were located in remote areas and Walter Reed was practicing frontier medicine, which was a very practical form of medicine. While moving frequently and living in these frontier locations, Walter and Emilie were blessed with two children.
Walter Reed’s continual hard work, dedication, and flexibility earned him what he needed for his next promotion. On June 26, 1880, he was promoted to captain. Ten more years of frontier travel would occur for Walter Reed and his family. On December 4, 1893, Walter Reed was promoted to major and was moved to Washington, DC. He was appointed the curator of the Army Medical Museum and a Professor at the new Army Medical College. His appointments to these positions would offer him invaluable opportunities for learning and research that would contribute to other scientific findings later in life.
Typhoid Fever and the Spanish American War
Five years into his time in Washington, DC, on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain following the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. Disease would kill far more men during the Spanish American war than the combat itself. Approximately 968 men died to hostile fire while over 5,000 died to disease. Walter Reed was appointed the chairman of the Typhoid Board in August 1898. Typhoid fever was being experienced in Army training camps in epidemic proportions. It took the Typhoid Board two years to fully identify the cause and support their findings.
After Dr. Reed’s time on the Typhoid Board, he was appointed the head of another Army board to investigate the infectious diseases in Cuba, particularly yellow fever. This disease was ravaging the camps of soldiers in Cuba. For decades, scientists and medical professionals had been working to figure out the cause of yellow fever. Now Walter Reed had a chance to focus his efforts on the mystery of yellow fever.
Yellow Fever Commission
In May of 1900, Surgeon General of the US Army, George Sternberg, appointed Walter Reed, along with James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte of Havana, as the US Army Yellow Fever Commission. These brilliant men believed the best way to approach their research on yellow fever was not by searching for the causative agent, but rather by recognizing the route in which it was transmitted. This approach brought them back to the work of Carlos Finlay. The board members visited him at his home in Cuba to discuss his theories on yellow fever transmission by a female mosquito. After discussions with Finlay, the men decided to attempt Finlay’s previous experimental trials but with much stricter laboratory controls in place. First, they wanted to know how yellow fever was transmitted. Additionally, they wished to disprove the theory that yellow fever could be spread by soiled items, such as clothing and linens. This belief had caused people to destroy everything in contact with this disease, wasting thousands of dollars. The first experiments to test Finlay’s theories involved having mosquitoes feed on volunteers. The intention of this experiment was to have controlled proof of a patient coming down with yellow fever via a mosquito.
Dr. Jesse Lazear hatched mosquitoes from eggs to use for these experiments. To feed them, daily, Lazear would take the mosquitoes to the yellow fever ward of the hospital and allow them to feed on sick patients. Each individual mosquito was kept in a test tube. Meticulous data was kept on the procedures, such as which patient or patients each mosquito fed on and what stage of the illness the patient was in.
On the afternoon of August 27, Lazear noticed one mosquito had not “fed” and could quite possibly die. He expressed his concern to Carroll. Carroll sacrificed himself for the cause, volunteered to have the mosquito feed on him, and then went on with his normal responsibilities, just as if nothing had happened. He did not quarantine himself, as was demanded of previous volunteers. Two days later, it became clear that something had happened. Carroll became ill and the next day he was taken to the Columbia Barracks yellow fever wards. The following day it was confirmed he had come down with yellow fever.
Although Carroll would be one of the lucky ones to recover, his recuperation would be a lengthy one. However, the experiments continued forward. Since Carroll had not been in quarantine, his contracting of yellow fever could not be proved irrefutably. Lazear began to look for another human volunteer. Lazear came across Private William Dean at the hospital one day and asked him if he would like to volunteer for some experiments involving mosquitoes. Lazear used the same mosquito that had infected Carroll and allowed it to feed on Private Dean. He came down with yellow fever. This was indeed an amazing moment for the men!
The next month, another board member, Jesse Lazear also became infected with yellow fever. He became ill on September 18, and his illness progressed quickly to the final stage. On September 25, Jesse Lazear died.
Reed went to work on plans for his final experiment to be done in Cuba. Camp Lazear was established and named after their associate, Jesse Lazear, who had just died a few months prior. It opened on November 20, 1900 with two buildings were constructed for the trials.
The first building, “Infected Clothing Building,” was a small room in which selected soldiers stayed with only contaminated items from yellow fever patients, and these soldiers were kept away from any mosquitoes. Along the walls, contaminated linens and items were hung. Every night they slept in sheets that were dirty with vomit, blood, and other body fluids of patients ill with yellow fever. Though quite thoroughly exposed and probably very disgusted, none of these soldiers contracted the disease.
The second building, “Infected Mosquito Building,” was separated into two parts by a screen. On one side a participant was lying in a clean bed where several infected mosquitoes were released. On the other side of the screen the doctors viewed and recorded his mosquito bites. Additionally, other participants sat, breathing in the same air, but were not exposed to the infected mosquitoes.
The main finding of the studies in Cuba was that yellow fever was transmitted by a female Aedes aegypti mosquito. The mosquito feeds on an infected individual and spreads yellow fever once it bites the non-immune individual. It is at least a 12-day incubation period from the mosquito’s initial exposure to the illness, to the time the female is infectious and develops the illness within her body, to the time the victim receives the bite from the infectious mosquito, to when symptoms will begin. Fomites, items such as bedding and clothing, do not spread yellow fever. They also found that a victim usually created enough immunity from their initial contraction of yellow fever, that it usually would not contract it a second time, if recovered from the first. Later, upon further investigation, they concluded that blood of an infected person could pass through a Pasteur filter and still be infectious. This was the first known filterable virus that caused a human infection.
History had been made with the scientific findings of the US Army Yellow Fever Commission, and millions of lives and dollars would be saved. In February of 1901, Walter Reed began to share with the medical world all that they had learned about yellow fever. He resumed his teaching duties and also continued to write and speak on yellow fever. Walter was always working very hard, fulfilling his multiple professional duties.
In November of 1902, Walter Reed became ill and on November 17, he underwent surgery and his ruptured appendix was removed. His prognosis was a healthy recovery but that did not come to pass. Shortly after, on November 23, he died, at the age of 51, due to peritonitis that had developed.
Walter Reed was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. His head stone read, “He gave to man control of that dreadful scourge yellow fever.” His family, the United States military, and the medical field felt a great loss from this man and his untimely, early death. At the peak of his scientific and medical career, it was over. Nonetheless, Walter Reed’s legacy lives on in many areas.
DeLong, Walter. Dr. Walter Reed - A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2015.
Bean, William B. Walter Reed: A Biography. University Press of Virginia. 1982.
Pierce, John R. and Jim Writer. Yellow Jacket: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered Its Deadly Secrets. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005.
Wood, L.N. Walter Reed: Doctor in Uniform. Julian Messner, Inc. 1943.