Walter Reed is known today for the Army medical center that bears his name. But a century ago he was known as the Army officer who helped defeat one of the great enemies of the time: yellow fever.
The youngest of five children, Reed was born on September 13, 1851, in Gloucester County, Virginia. His father, a pastor, moved frequently to minister to different parishes, later settling his family in Charlottesville, near the University of Virginia. Under the tutelage of an older brother at the university, Reed enrolled there and graduated at age 17 with a medical degree on July 1, 1869. He remains the youngest graduate in the history of the university's medical school.
Reed earned a second M.D. a year later at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City. In 1873 he gained a position as assistant sanitary officer for the Brooklyn Board of Health, sparking his interest in the public health field. Yet he grew to dislike urban living, as he wrote to his future wife, Emilie Blackwell Lawrence of North Carolina: "I have been unable to discover the great advantages of living in Metropolitan Cities, except it be in the 'wear and tear.'" The Army would give him the chance to go far away.
On February 8, 1875, Reed began a grueling 30-hour exam for entry into the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army. One of the essay questions dealt with a pressing medical issue of the day, yellow fever. He noted the disease's prevalence in Havana and wrote that it could be spread "[e]ither by germs clinging to clothing or in cargo of ship -- or by a person who is ... sick of the disease being transported to a non-infected [location]." Reed passed the exam and accepted a commission on July 2, 1875. He was later assigned to several remote outposts, including in Arizona and Nebraska, where he was the only doctor for as much as a 200-mile area. At these postings, his wife gave birth to two children, Walter Lawrence and Emilie, most likely delivered by their father. After practicing frontier medicine for 15 years, Reed chose a different path, which would take him to Havana to fight the disease he was tested on as a young Army hopeful.
Back to School
Returning to the East Coast in 1893 from his last Western appointment, Reed joined the faculty of the Army Medical School in Washington, D.C. Promoted to major, he served as professor of clinical and sanitary microscopy. He researched diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever, taking him on a trip to Key West to study a smallpox outbreak in 1896 and throughout the southeastern United States studying typhoid in 1898-99. His work inspired Army Surgeon General George Sternberg to tap Reed to lead a board charged with the study of infectious disease in Cuba.
After arriving in Havana in late June 1900, Reed and fellow members of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Board conducted experiments on human subjects to find the cause of yellow fever. Reed lamented the loss of his colleague Jesse Lazear to the disease but celebrated the discovery that the mosquito was the transmitting agent. On New Year's Eve at the turn of the century, he wrote to his wife: "[I]t 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 twenty or more years, that I might be permitted in some way or sometime to do something to alleviate human suffering has been answered!"
Honors and Tragedy
In recognition of his work on yellow fever, Reed received honorary degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard University. The secretary of war noted in his annual report that he would ask the president to appoint the Army major an assistant surgeon general with the rank of colonel. But in November 1902, Reed fell ill. Admitted to an Army hospital, he died on November 23 from peritonitis that developed after his appendix ruptured. The inscription on his burial marker at Arlington National Cemetery quotes his honorary degree from Harvard: "He gave to man control of that dreadful scourge yellow fever." His name would in 1909 adorn a new Army hospital that later grew to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
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