Reed, Walter

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. Belroi, near Gloucester, Virginia, 13 September 1851; d. Washington, D.C., 23 November 1902)medicine.

Reed was the youngest of the five children of Lemuel Sutton Reed and Pharaba White, both North Carolinians of English descent. His father was a Methodist minister who was called to a new parish every year or two; Reed therefore grew up in a number of communities in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. His schooling was haphazard until late in 1865, when the family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Reed began two years’ tutelage under the Confederate Lieutenant William R. Abbot, who later became headmaster of Bellevue School, near Bedford, Virginia. Reed studied the traditional subjects of Latin and Greek, English composition, grammar and rhetoric, and history and the humanities. He entered the University of Virginia at the age of fifteen, and after a year was permitted to take the medical course, a nine-month graded curriculum, twice as long as that offered anywhere else in the country. He received the MD. in 1869, standing third in his class of fifty. Reed then went to New York to study at the medical school of Bellevue Hospital; he earned a second M.D. in 1870, when he was eighteen, but the degree was not awarded him officially until he was twenty-one.

Reed then became assistant physician at the New York Infants’ Hospital. In 1871 he was resident physician at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, and in 1871–1872 at Brooklyn City Hospital. He simultaneously served as district physician for the New York Department of Public Charities. In June 1873 he was appointed sanitary inspector of the Brooklyn Board of Health. In June of the following year he received a commission as assistant surgeon, with the rank of first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps and was ordered to a post in Arizona. Before he left for the west he married Emilie Lawrence, whom he had met and become engaged to while on a series of visits to his father in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. For the next eleven years he worked at bases in Arizona (including Fort Apache), Nebraska, Minnesota, and Alabama. His son, Lawrence, was born in Arizona in 1877 and a daughter, Blossom, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1883.

As he neared forty, Reed became restless. He was aware of new discoveries in pathology and bacteriology, but garrison life afforded him no opportunities for further study. He therefore applied for a leave of absence to do advanced work, but was instead ordered to Baltimore, Maryland, as attending surgeon. He was authorized to study at Johns Hopkins Hospital where, after completing a brief clinical course, he undertook the study of pathology under William H. Welch, who early recognized his abilities. Reed did autopsies, learned new pathological techniques, and performed experiments. He was then sent for another two years to another isolated and dreary army outpost at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, but in 1893 was promoted major and, upon the appointment of George Sternberg as surgeon general of the United States, brought to Washington as curator of the Army Medical Museum and professor of bacteriology and clinical microscopy at the new Army Medical College. He worked closely with John Shaw Billings in the old Surgeon General’s Library and Army Pathology Museum.

Reed’s early work in Washington is buried in the Reports of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service of the United States. It was not until 1896 that he was first able to demonstrate his skill as a medical investigator, in that year malaria was rampant in the Washington Barracks and at Fort Myer, in Virginia; it was generally believed to be caused by bad drinking water. Reed showed that there were no outbreaks of the disease in other areas of Washington that, like the military bases, obtained drinking water from the swampy Potomac. Moreover, although both officers and enlisted men shared much the same food, water, and housing, malaria was rife among only the enlisted class. The enlisted men would, however, often surreptitiously leave camp at night and go to the city along a trail through the swamps, and Reed was therefore able to state that not the drinking water, but rather the bad air—“malarial” in the ancient and literal sense—was responsible for the disease.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 Reed volunteered unsuccessfully for service in Cuba. He was instead appointed chairman of the board that had been hurriedly formed to investigate the outbreak of typhoid that had reached epidemic proportions in most large army camps. Hundreds of new cases of typhoid were found every day and many were of fatal outcome; bad water was again thought to be the mode of transmission of the bacillus, which had recently been identified. The board found that water was of little importance as a vector of the disease, which, they reported, was rather spread by flies and contact with fecal material. In addition, the Typhoid Board contributed to the control of the disease by discovering that it might be transmitted by carriers—persons who harbored the infectious organisms without being ill, or, indeed, without ever having had typhoid fever. The work of the board made it possible to end the epidemic which had killed between fifty and one hundred times as many soldiers as had died in combat or of wounds in Cuba; their massive two-volume report is a model for epidemiologists.

In 1900 Reed was appointed head of an army board to investigate the causes of yellow fever, which had broken out among American troops in Cuba. In the United States yellow fever was an annual scourge; the disease swept up the eastern seaboard and often spread to the Gulf states and up the Mississippi River valley. The places in which it occurred, the season of its occurrence, and the temperature coordinates of its spread were predictable and well known but not understood. No one knew what caused it, and the terror that accompanied it was equaled only by the misapprehension of its nature. A few lucky guesses had been made before Reed took up his work; as early as 1848 the Alabama physician Josiah No had suggested that an insect—perhaps the mosquito—caused the disease, although he had only tenuous evidence, and in 1881 Carlos Finlay, working closely with the United States Yellow Fever Commission in Havana, suggested that yellow fever was transmitted by Culex fasciatus (now called Aëdes aegypti ).

The question of the cause of yellow fever was nonetheless still a vexed one when Reed took it Up. In 1897 the Italian physician Giuseppe Sanarelli had stated that the organism Bacillus icteroides was the specific causative agent, and Sternberg, who also believed yellow fever to be caused by a bacterium, assigned Reed and James Carroll the task of investigating Sanarelli’s claim. Reed and Carroll soon demonstrated that Sanarelli’s organism bore no relationship to yellow fever. It was shortly thereafter that the disease broke out in Havana, invading even the headquarters of the governor, General Leonard Wood, and Reed was sent to Cuba as the head of the Yellow Fever Board, consisting of himself, Carroll, Jesse W. Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte.

Upon arriving in Havana, Reed and his co-workers pursued further investigations of Sanarelli’s Bacillus icteroides and concluded that it was the hog-cholera virus. They then turned to the theory of the mosquito as the vector of yellow fever. Finlay had been conducting experiments along these Lines, and provided them with mosquitoes, mosquito eggs, and instructions for raising the insects in the laboratory. Since there was no laboratory test for yellow fever, Finlay also aided them in the clinical verification of the disease. Reed then designed and conducted the experiments that elucidated the means of transmission of the disease once and for all. He used human subjects of necessity, and Lazear, who was accidentally bitten by an infected mosquito, contracted yellow fever and died; Carroll also became ill with the first experimental case of the disease but recovered. Using soldier volunteers. Reed and his team produced twenty-two other experimental instances of yellow fever, of which none was fatal. These experiments, coupled with the notes that Lazear had left, led Reed and his co-workers to the discoveries about the disease that resulted in its eradication.

Reed and his colleagues discovered that the female Aëdes aegypti mosquito can become infected by biting a victim of yellow fever only during the first three days of the course of the illness; she does not become infectious for two weeks thereafter, but may then remain infectious for up to two months in a warm season. The mosquito does not herself become ill, nor do her eggs, which remain infertile until she has fed on blood, harbor an infection that will affect the brood. The period of incubation of yellow fever is three to five days after the victim has been bitten by an infected mosquito, and having had the disease provides excellent immunity against subsequent attacks. Through experimentation Reed and his group established that whole blood taken from a patient early in the course of the disease will, upon injection into a susceptible person, cause yellow fever. They also determined that blood from an infected person could be passed through a Pasteur filter and still remain infectious; this was thus the first known filterable virus causing a human infection.

Within a year, as a direct result of the work of the Yellow Fever Board, Havana was freed of its age-old plague. Reed lived to see this triumph; he died late in 1902, following surgery for a ruptured appendix and abscess of the cecum which perhaps followed from an amoebic infection that he might easily have contracted in Cuba. Shortly before his death Harvard University awarded him an honorary M.A., citing him as “Walter Reed, medical graduate of Virginia, the Army Surgeon who planned and directed in Cuba the experiments that have given man control over that fearful scourge, yellow fever.”


I. Original Works. Reed’s papers on yellow fever are contained in Yellow Fever. A Compilation of Various Publications Results of the Work of Major Walter Reed, Medical Corps, United States Army, and the Yellow Fever Commission, Senate document no. 822 from the Third Session of the 61st Congress (Washington, D. C, 1911). This compilation includes the major contributions of Reed’s Yellow Fever Board and includes three notes by Reed on the etiology of yellow fever (Oct. 1900, Feb. 1901, and Jan. 1902), a note on Bacillus icteroides and Bacillus choleraesuis (1 Apr. 1899), “Experimental Yellow Fever” (May 1901), and “The Prevention of Yellow Fever” (Sept. 1901). Reed also wrote “Report of the Sanitary Inspection District Health Department, City of Brooklyn,” in Report of the Board of Health of the City of Brooklyn from May 8, 1873 to January 1, 1875 (New York, 1876); and Report on the Origin and Spread of Typhoid Fever in US Military Camps During the Spanish War of 1898 (Washington, D.C., 1904), written with Victor C. Vaughn and Edwin O. Shakespeare.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies of Reed are Howard A. Kelly, Walter Reed and Yellow Fever (Baltimore, 1923); Laura N. Wood, Walter Reed, Doctor in Uniform (New York, 1943); Albert E. Truby, Memoir of Walter Reed: The Yellow Fever Episode (New York, 1943); and William B. Bean, “Walter Reed: “He Gave Man Control of That Dreadful Scourge — Yellow Fever,’” in Archives of Internal Medicine, 89 (1952), 171–187. See also two memoirs of Reed by Walter D. McCaw and Jefferson R. Kean in Senate document no. 822 (above).

William B. Bean

Reed, Walter

views updated May 18 2018


A native of Virginia, Walter Reed (18511902) received his medical education at Bellevue Medical School in New York, worked as a district physician in Brooklyn, and then joined the U.S. Army, providing basic medical services in many parts of the frontier West. Attracted by the new science of bacteriology, he was sent by the army to study with William Henry Welch at Johns Hopkins University, and was later appointed professor of bacteriology in the Army Medical School in Washington, DC in 1893. He chaired the U.S. Army typhoid fever commission of 1899, in which he, Victor C. Vaughan, and Edward O. Shakespeare established the importance of the asymptomatic typhoid carrier.

While working on this commission, he was assigned to investigate the high mortality from yellow fever in the U.S. military forces then occupying Havana in the wake of the Spanish-American War. His research there first established that, contrary to the then official position of the Surgeon General's Office, yellow fever was not caused by a gram-negative rod, the Sanarelli bacillus. Following this research, he and his three colleagues on the Yellow Fever Commission, Aristides Agramonte, James Carroll, and Jesse Lazear, undertook to test, in experiments with human volunteers, Carlos Finlay's hypothesis that yellow fever could be transmitted by the bite of the Aedes Aegypti (then known as Stegomyia fasciata or Culex fasciatus ) mosquito. A key feature of Reed's experiments was the long intervalabout twelve to eighteen daysbetween the infecting of mosquitoes via their feeding on yellow fever patients and the exposure of human volunteers to the bites of the infected mosquitoes. Reed had been impressed by the observation of U.S. Army surgeon Henry Rose Carter that yellow fever epidemics were characterized by a two-to three-week interval between the first case and the next set of cases. Reed correctly surmised that this represented the period of incubation of the infective agent in the mosquito.

Reed's procedure successfully transmitted yellow fever to several volunteers, confirmed that Aedes Aegypti was the essential vector of the disease, and was followed immediately by a mosquito eradication program led by Major William Gorgas (18541920) that virtually eradicated yellow fever in Havana for the first time in recorded history. Gorgas (who attained the rank of Major General during World War I), also led the mosquito eradication program that permitted construction of the Panama Canal. Happily, all of Reed's volunteers recovered from their experimental yellow fever infections, but Jesse Lazear died after being bitten by an infected mosquito that he allowed to feed on his arm.

Nigel Paneth

(see also: Communicable Disease Control; Finlay, Carlos; Vector-Borne Diseases; Yellow Fever )


Kelly, H. A. (1907). Walter Reed and Yellow Fever. New York: McLure, Phillips.

Walter Reed

views updated Jun 11 2018

Walter Reed

Walter Reed (1851-1902), American military surgeon and head of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission, is widely known as the man who conquered yellow fever by tracing its origin to a particular mosquito species.

Walter Reed was born on Sept. 13, 1851, at Belroi, Va., the son of a Methodist minister. After attending private schools, Reed entered the University of Virginia, where he received his medical degree in 1869, after completing only 2 years. He then went to New York, where he received a second medical degree from the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1870. After working for the Board of Health of New York and of Brooklyn, Reed was commissioned an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army with the rank of first lieutenant in June 1875. Then followed 11 years of frontier garrison duty, further study at Johns Hopkins Hospital while on duty in Baltimore, and an assignment as professor of bacteriology and clinical microscopy at the newly organized Army Medical School in Washington in 1893.

When yellow fever made its appearance among American troops in Havana, Cuba, in 1900, Reed was appointed head of the commission of U.S. Army medical officers to investigate the cause and mode of transmission. After some months of fruitless work in searching for the cause of the disease, Reed and his associates decided to concentrate upon determining the mode of transmission. Carlos Juan Finlay first advanced the theory that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes (he blamed it on the Stegomyia fasciata, later known as the Aedes aegypti) and proved it by experiments, but physicians generally did not credit the possibility. Walter Reed confirmed Finlay's findings by using human subjects. In fact, there was no alternative to experimentation with humans; Reed and his associates argued persuasively that the results would justify the procedure. Mosquitoes that had been fed on yellow fever-infected blood were applied to several of Reed's associates, including Dr. James Carroll, who developed the first experimental case of the disease.

Then followed a series of controlled experiments with soldier volunteers. In all, 22 cases of experimental yellow fever were produced: 14 by mosquito bites, 6 by injections of blood, and 2 by injections of filtered blood serum. At the same time, in order to eliminate the possibility of transmission by contact, Dr. Robert P. Cook and a group of soldiers slept in a detached building in close contact with the clothing and bedding of yellow fever patients from the camp hospital. Since no case of illness resulted from any of these contacts, the theory was conclusively proved.

The value of the commission's work quickly became evident. In 1900 there had been 1,400 cases of yellow fever in Havana; by 1902, after the attack, mounted because of the commission's report, on the mosquito had been under way for over a year in Cuba and the Panama Canal Zone, there was not a single case. Now that its mode of transmission is known, there is no danger of yellow fever in any country with adequate control facilities.

Reed returned to Washington, D.C., in February 1901 and resumed his teaching duties at the Army Medical School. In 1902 Harvard University and the University of Michigan gave him honorary degrees. Only a few days before his death in Washington on Nov. 22, 1902, he was appointed librarian of the Army Medical Library. The Walter Reed Hospital in Washington was named in his honor.

Further Reading

Howard A. Kelly, Walter Reed and Yellow Fever (1906; 3d ed. rev. 1923), includes a bibliography of Reed's writings. See also Albert E. Truby, Memoir of Walter Reed: The Yellow Fever Episode (1943).

Additional Sources

Bean, William Bennett, Walter Reed: a biography, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982. □

Reed, Walter

views updated May 18 2018

Reed, Walter (1851–1902), medical officer and research scientist.After receiving his M.D. degree in 1869 from the University of Virginia and spending several years working in the field of public health in New York City, Reed joined the Army Medical Department (1875). In 1898, he headed a board that identified typhoid fever as the cause of much sickness and death at the camps where troops gathered to train for the Spanish‐American War. By establishing human waste as the source of contamination, the board made possible effective public health measures to prevent future epidemics. When, in 1900, another board headed by Reed proved that yellow fever, much dreaded by soldiers sent to Cuba, was carried by a mosquito and identified the specific mosquito, successful efforts to reduce this threat to public health also became possible.

Reed's accomplishments resulted not only from his personal skills as a research scientist but from the disciplined world in which he worked: medical officers were often better able than their civilian counterparts to conduct the studies necessary to identify both major diseases that threatened public health and the means by which they spread in civilian and military communities alike. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is named for him.
[See also Cuba, U.S. Military Involvement in; Disease, Tropical.]


William B. Bean , Walter Reed, 1982.
Albert E. Truby , Memoir of Walter Reed, 1943.

Mary C. Gillett

Walter Reed

views updated May 23 2018

Walter Reed


Medical officer in the United States Army who helped demonstrate how to control yellow and typhoid fevers. Between 1898 and 1901 Reed led two commissions to study the origin and spread of infectious epidemics in army camps. His experiments proved that flies were the predominant carriers of typhoid fever and that unsanitary conditions helped spread it. Reed's experiments focusing on yellow fever established that the bite of certain mosquitoes transmitted the disease. His team conducted a series of daring experiments in which physicians and soldiers volunteered to be infected by yellow fever germs, so that they could determine the course of the disease and how it might be controlled.

Walter Reed

views updated May 09 2018

Walter Reed


American physician, military surgeon, and epidemiologist whose discovery in 1900 that the aedes aegypti mosquito is the vector of yellow fever soon led to the control and conquest of this disease. Yellow fever is a tropical viral hepatitis. For centuries it was among the most feared plagues in the world. Carlos Juan Finlay expressed the mosquito vector theory in 1881, but only after Reed's work could William Crawford Gorgas institute the effective public health policies that eliminated yellow fever from Havana, Cuba, by 1902.

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