Maass, Clara (1876–1901)

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Maass, Clara (1876–1901)

American nurse and victim of yellow fever immunity experiments . Born in East Orange, New Jersey, on June 28, 1876; died in Las Animas, Cuba, on August 24, 1901; interred in East Orange, New Jersey; oldest of nine children of B. Maass (father) and H.A. Maass (mother); graduated from the Newark German Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1895.


Newark German Hospital Training School for Nurses was renamed in her memory; inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Nurses' Association; U.S. post office issued a memorial stamp.

Served in the Spanish-American War (1898); volunteered for yellow fever immunity experiments conducted by the U.S. Yellow Fever Commission, Cuba (1901).

Clara Maass was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1876, the oldest of nine children of a German immigrant mill worker. At age 15, she was forced to quit school to earn money for her family. While training at the Newark German Hospital Training School for Nurses, she sent half her wages home each month; after graduating in 1895, she was made head nurse of the school.

Starting in April 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Maass served as a contract nurse for the U.S. Medical Department in army camps in Florida, Georgia, and Cuba. In 1900, she volunteered once more and was sent to the Philippines, where she came down with severe joint pain, diagnosed as dengue fever, and nearly died. Sent home, she recovered and was then stationed in Havana.

Maass was in perpetual danger while serving as a nurse. Many of the soldiers she had been treating had been felled not by bullets but by the deadly yellow fever. The disease had killed over 1,500 soldiers, far more than those killed in battle, and 20,000 American soldiers had come down with the malady, which is marked by high fever, vomiting, and liver complications that cause the skin to turn yellow. In 1901, while at Las Animas Hospital in Havana, Maass volunteered for yellow fever experiments being conducted in Cuba by Major Walter Reed for the U.S. government. At the time a dispute raged among clinicians as to whether the illness was transmitted by poor sanitary conditions or mosquitoes. Under an experiment directed by Major William C. Gorgas and Dr. John Guitéras, Maass was one of about 20 volunteers who agreed to expose themselves to mosquito bites. It was believed that under controlled conditions and immediate hospital care, infected patients would recover. Maass wrote her mother: "Do not worry, Mother, if you hear that I have yellow fever. Now is a good time of the year to catch it if one has to. Most of the cases are mild, and then I should be an immune and not be afraid of the disease anymore."

On August 4, she was bitten by an infected Stegomyia mosquito and soon developed a case of yellow fever, but doctors decided the case was too mild; it would not make her immune. On August 14, they recommended she be bitten once more. From the second exposure, Maass suffered excruciating pain and died ten days later. She was only 25, the only woman and the only American to die during the yellow fever experiments of 1900–1901. (Dr. Jesse W. Lazear had died in September 1900 but in an uncontrolled experiment which was not under the auspices of Walter Reed.) Clara Maass did not die in vain, however, for the dispute over the transmission of yellow fever was resolved, and a treatment eventually discovered. At the time of her death, The New York Times noted: "No soldier in the late war placed his life in peril for better reasons than those which prompted this faithful nurse to risk hers."

In 1952, the Newark German Hospital Training School for Nurses, which had become Lutheran Memorial, was renamed the Clara Maass Memorial Hospital. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Nurses' Association, and the U.S. Postal Service issued a

stamp of her in 1976, after a pastor from East Orange led an impassioned campaign. "Here we have a martyr," he said, "and no one has ever heard of her."


Forbes, Malcolm, with Jeff Bloch. Women Who Made a Difference. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

The New York Times. August 25, 1901, October 21, 1901.

suggested reading:

O'Neill, Lois Decker. The Women's Book of World Records and Achievements. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada