Walter Reed Biography (1851-1902)


Walter Reed is best known for his research demonstrating that the mosquito isresponsible for transmitting yellow fever from infected humans to uninfectedhumans. In its emphasis on sound scientific methodology, his work set the standards for twentieth-century experimental medicine.

Reed was born in Belroi, Virginia. He received an M.D. from the University ofVirginia in 1869, and another from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in NewYork, New York in 1870. After briefly practicing medicine, he was commissioned in the United States Medical Corps in 1874, serving at frontier posts in the West. In 1898, Reed was appointed chair of a board to investigate typhoid fever in army camps. The board was able to show that typhoid is spread by flies and contact with fecal material, bringing an end to the epidemic.

In 1900, Reed was appointed head of the Commission of the United States Armyon yellow fever in Havana, Cuba, of which James Carroll (1854-1907), Jesse William Lazear (1866-1900) and Aristides Agramonte (1869-1931) were also members. At this time, theories abounded on the mode of transmission, as well as the cause, of yellow fever--the sometimes fatal disease occurring in tropical and subtropical zones worldwide. In 1848 Josiah Nott (1804-1873), a physicianin Alabama, proposed the mosquito as the vector of yellow fever between humans. In 1881, Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1940) suggested that the Aëdes species specifically was involved.

Reed's commission was requested to investigate the bacterial basis of the disease, which the Italian physician, Giuseppe Sanarelli (1864-1940), had proposed in 1897, but in 18 cases they could not find one. Reed was skeptical of the bacterial origin theory because he knew of cases where no contact had occurred between infected individuals. The Commission decided to experiment with Aëdes aegypti mosquitos.

While conducting their research, Carroll and Lazear were accidentally infected with yellow fever. Lazear's case was fatal and, on November 20, 1900, Reedestablished an isolation camp called Camp Lazear where the three remaining scientists produced 22 cases of yellow fever in soldiers who had volunteered for the study, conclusively implicating Aëdes as the vector. In theprocess, they also disproved the bacterial theory, demonstrating that the causative organism is non-filterable--what we now know to be a virus. Harvard awarded Reed an honorary M.A. He died in 1902 of acute appendicitis.

The Commission's evidence made possible the eradication of yellow fever in areas where Aëdes'' breeding grounds were destroyed. It also marked the first time a human viral disease had been thoroughly researched, and Aëdes was the first insect determined to be a vector of a human disease. The Commission's use of experimental controls and meticulous records served as a model for medical research through the early twentieth century.

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