The Doctor Who Beat Yellow Fever

Physician's Money Digest, July15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 13

From his early childhood, Walter Reed knew hewanted to be a physician. As a young boy, he studiedwith local doctors in his hometown of Belroi,Va. He then went on to the University of Virginia,where in 1869 he completed a 2-year medical course injust 1 year, and received his medical degree at age 17.To this day, he is the youngest student ever to graduatefrom the university's medical school.

Although best known for his efforts to eliminate yellowfever, Dr. Reed had a varied career before heachieved that landmark victory. After joining the USArmy as a surgeon, Dr. Reed spent several years in far-flung army garrisons like Fort Apache in Arizona andFort Omaha in Nebraska. In between those assignments,he was stationed in Baltimore, Md, where hestudied bacteriology, then one of the newest fields inmedical science, at Johns Hopkins University.

Medicine during those years was making rapidadvances. Louis Pasteur had formulated his germ theoryof infectious disease and Robert Koch had perfecteda way to study bacteria. Because of his growing knowledgeof bacteriology, Dr. Reed was the logical choice tohead a board of army officers charged with finding thecause of typhoid fever.


Typhoid was the scourge of army camps, which wereoverflowing with volunteers for the Spanish-AmericanWar. Research by Dr. Reed's board uncovered severalcauses, including contact between victims and flies thathad been smeared with human feces containing thetyphoid bacilli. As a byproduct of its investigation, theboard discovered diagnostictechniques that were woefullyoutdated, often due toa lack of modern equipmentlike microscopes.


After the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, thearmy was faced with another medical problem. Yellowfever was rampant in Cuba, where the army was planninga 4-year occupation. Yellow fever was also stillfairly common in the United States, mainly in thesoutheastern states. There were an estimated 300,000cases of yellow fever in the United States between1793 and 1900, costing the nation about $500 million.

Once again, the army called on Dr. Reed. Now anArmy major, he was named to head a board commissionedto investigate yellow fever in Cuba. One theorythat the board considered was that the fever wascaused by a bacterium. Dr. Reed eventually rejectedthat hypothesis, arguing that the board should look athow the disease was transmitted rather than searchfor the cause of the disease.


An explanation that attracted Dr. Reed was yellowfever's transmission by infected mosquitoes. Amongthe factors that supported this line of thinking wasthat the disease spread haphazardly. One member ofa household might become ill while others escaped illness,even though they had been in close contact withthe victim. The disease also seemed to take its timespreading from one household member to another,with a gap of about 2 weeks being common.

Based on his preliminary research, Dr. Reedannounced that the mosquito was the host for yellowfever, but solid scientific proof was still needed. InNovember 1900, full-scale experiments were begun.The trials took place in a building that was divided byscreens, which separated volunteers who were bittenby infected mosquitoes from their unbitten comrades.Those who had been bitten developed yellow fever,while those on the other side of the screens escapedunharmed. In a second building, volunteers slept onsoiled sheets and pillows from yellow fever victimswithout contracting the disease, disproving the ideathat the disease was contagious.


Sanitary measures that were imposed in Havana,Cuba, following Dr. Reed's discovery resulted in the essentialelimination of yellow fever, a disease that had ravagedthe city for 150 years. Mosquito eradication also ledto successful disease control in the Canal Zone duringconstruction of the vital Panama Canal. Further researchled to the development of a yellow fever vaccine, whichhas been routinely given to Army personnel since 1942.

Dr. Reed died in November 1902 at age 51. He had2 children. In 1909, the Walter Reed General Hospitalin Washington, DC, opened its doors, and wasrenamed the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in1951 on the 100th anniversary of Dr. Reed's birth. In1946, he became the first physician to be honored bybeing elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americansat New York University.