Walter Reed

Walter Reed

Reed, Walter, 1851-1902, American army surgeon, b. Gloucester co., Va. In 1900 he was sent to Havana as head of an army commission to investigate an outbreak of yellow fever among American soldiers. Following the earlier suggestion by C. J. Finlay that the disease was transmitted by a mosquito vector rather than by direct contact, Reed and his companions used human volunteers under controlled experimental conditions to prove this conclusively. In 1901 they published their findings that yellow fever was caused by a virus borne by the Stegomyia fasciata mosquito (later designated as Aëdes aegypti).

See studies by H. A. Kelly (3d ed. 1923), A. E. Truby (1943), and L. N. Wood (1943).

Major Walter Reed, M.D., (September 13 1851 - November 23 1902) was a U.S. Army physician who in 1900 led the team which confirmed the theory (first set forth in 1881 by Cuban doctor/scientist Carlos Finlay) that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, rather than by direct contact. This insight, which followed John Snow's epidemiological study of cholera in England (1854) by forty-six years, gave impetus to the new fields of epidemiology and biomedicine and most immediately allowed the resumption and completion of work on the Panama Canal (1904-14) by the United States.


Walter Reed was born in Belroi, Virginia and raised in Lebanon, an unincorporated community in Laclede County in eastern Missouri's Middle of Missouri region, to Lemuel Sutton Reed (a Methodist minister) and Pharaba White.

After two year-long sessions at the University of Virginia, Reed completed the M.D. degree in 1869, at the age of 17. He then enrolled at the New York University's Bellevue Hospital Medical College in Manhattan, New York, where he obtained a second M.D. in 1870. After interning at several New York City hospitals, he served the New York Board of Health until 1875. He married Emilie (born Emily) Lawrence on April 26, 1876 and took her west with him. Later, Emilie would give birth to a son and a daughter and the couple would adopt an Indian girl while posted in frontier camps.

With his youth apparently limiting his influence, Reed joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps, both for its professional opportunities and the modest financial security it could provide. He spent much of his Army career until 1893 at difficult postings in the American West, at one point, looking after several hundred Apache Indians, including Geronimo. During one of his last tours, he completed advanced coursework in pathology and bacteriology in the Johns Hopkins University Hospital Pathology Laboratory.

Reed joined the faculty of the newly-opened Army Medical School in Washington, D.C. in 1893, where he held the professorship of Bacteriology and Clinical Microscopy. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he actively pursued medical research projects and served as the curator of the Army Medical Museum, which later became the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM).

Reed first traveled to Cuba in 1899 to study disease in U.S. Army encampments there. Yellow fever became a problem for the Army during the Spanish American War, felling thousands of soldiers in Cuba.

In May 1900, Reed, a major, returned to Cuba when he was appointed head of the Army board charged by Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg to examine tropical diseases including yellow fever. Sternberg was one of the founders of bacteriology during this time of great advances in medicine due to widespread acceptance of Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease as well as the methods of studying bacteria developed by Robert Koch.

During Reed's tenure with the US Army Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba, the board confirmed both the transmission by mosquitoes and disproved the common belief that yellow fever could be transmitted by clothing and bedding soiled by the body fluids and excrement of yellow fever sufferers - articles known as fomites.

The board conducted many of its dramatic series of experiments at Camp Lazear, named in November 1900 for Reed's assistant and friend Jesse William Lazear who had died two months earlier of yellow fever while a member of the Commission.

The risky but fruitful research work was done with human volunteers, including some of the medical personnel such as Lazear and Clara Maass who allowed themselves to be deliberately infected. The research work with the disease under Reed's leadership was largely responsible for stemming the mortality rates from yellow fever during the building of the Panama Canal, something that had confounded the French attempts to build in that region only 30 years earlier.

Following Reed's return from Cuba in 1901, he continued to speak and publish on yellow fever. He received honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan in recognition of his seminal work.

In November 1902, Reed's appendix ruptured; he died on November 23, 1902, of the resulting peritonitis, at age 51. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Reed's breakthrough in yellow fever research is widely considered a milestone in biomedicine, opening new vistas of research and humanitarianism.



Other sources

  • Bean, William B., Walter Reed: A Biography, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982.
  • Bean, William B., “Walter Reed and Yellow Fever,” JAMA 250.5 (5 August 1983): 659-62.

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