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discoverer of a method for controlling the spread of many diseases
Walter Reed was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, on September 13, 1851, the youngest of five children. His father was a pastor who moved the family from parish to parish before finally settling in Charlottesville.
In Charlottesville, Walter came under the tutelage of an older brother who taught at the University of Virginia. After completing two one-year courses at the university in 1868, he earned his medical degree on July 1, 1869; he remains the youngest person ever to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He earned a second medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City the following year, and then spent almost three years interning at several New York City hospitals. In 1873, he became an assistant secretary officer for the Brooklyn Board of Health, in which capacity he worked until 1875. He married Emilie Lawrence on April 26, 1876; she would give birth to a son and a daughter, and the couple also adopted a Native American girl.
On February 8, 1875, Reed began the 30-hour-long exam for entry into the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He passed the test easily, and was commissioned a Captain on July 2nd. One of the questions he had to answer on the exam concerned the transmission of yellow fever, to which Reed responded that the disease was spread "[e]ither by germs clinging to clothing or in cargo of ship -- or by a person who is ... sick of the disease being transported to a non-infected [location]." He spent the next 16 years at a string of remote outposts in the West, often as the only doctor for miles.
After spending years on the frontier, Reed was granted a four-month leave of absence so he could update his medical studies at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he learned so well that he was allowed to extend his leave for another seven months. He was promoted to Major in 1893, and became a professor of clinical and sanitary microscopy at the Army Medical School in Washington, D.C., that same year. In addition to fulfilling his teaching duties, Reed also did research on cholera, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever, and other diseases. He studied a smallpox outbreak in Key West in 1896, and a typhoid outbreak throughout the southeastern United States in 1898-99. During his research on typhoid he was able to determine that flies were the principal carriers of the organism that causes the disease, meaning that the best way to control (if not prevent) an outbreak was to control the fly population.
In 1900, Army Surgeon General George Sternberg appointed Reed head of a board charged with studying tropical diseases in Cuba, with special emphasis on yellow fever, which had accounted for a majority of American deaths during the Spanish-American War. During its research, the board enlisted several volunteers who allowed themselves to be infected with the yellow fever virus so doctors could study the course of the disease. Although the research directly caused the deaths of two researchers, it also confirmed that yellow fever is caused by a germ carried by mosquitoes. The board concluded that the most effective way to prevent future outbreaks was to control mosquito populations, and it was the one simple conclusion that was responsible for stemming the mortality rates from yellow fever during the building of the Panama Canal.
Reed was slated to be named Assistant Surgeon General with the rank of Colonel when he was felled by a ruptured appendix. He died in a Washington, D.C., Army hospital on November 22, 1902, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was named in his honor in 1909.
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This page was last updated on 09/29/2017.