Who Was Walter Reed?

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Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. cares for thousands of active and retired members of our armed forces. We hear Walter Reed’s name a lot in association with the hospital, but who was he? What did he do to get a hospital named after him? Let’s take a look.

© LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Corbis

If you want to get a major hospital named after you, it doesn’t hurt to be a little precocious. Reed certainly was. He graduated from the University of Virginia’s medical school in July 1869, two months shy of his 18th birthday. (He’s still the youngest person to ever complete an M.D. at the school.)

After graduation Reed headed to New York to beef up his clinical expertise, but he hit some roadblocks. Although he was able to get a gig as the assistant sanitary officer for the Brooklyn Board of Health, many potential patients and partners were skeptical of Reed’s medical prowess because of his extremely young age. Reed didn’t care for big city life all that much, either, so he eventually decided to leave civilian life and join the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

Reed officially received his appointment as a first lieutenant in June 1875, and for the next 18 years he and his growing family bounced around the country, including long tours in rugged Western outposts.

They Had a Fever

By all accounts Reed was a heck of an army doctor, but he really didn’t make his memorable mark until he moved back to Washington in 1893 to take a faculty position at the Army Medical School and a job as the curator of Army Medical Museum. By this time Reed had received extra training in pathology and bacteriology at Johns Hopkins, and he began rigorous research into diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, and cholera.

At the time, typhoid was a real problem for the army. Troops training for and fighting in the 1898 Spanish-American War kept going down to typhoid in squalid army camps. In 1899 Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg sent a team of army doctors headed by Reed to Cuba to study the disease. Reed and his squad of bacteriologists eventually pinpointed the cause of the typhoid outbreaks: fecal bacteria and unclean drinking water.

Reed’s biggest triumph came the following year. After his success investigating typhoid, Surgeon General Sternberg set Reed to the task of investigating the cause of yellow fever. Reed led another team to Cuba to tackle this even trickier disease. Reed eventually began investigating a 20-year-old theory that a Cuban doctor named Carlos Finlay had proposed about mosquitoes spreading yellow fever.

Critics initially dismissed Finlay’s mosquito theory as nonsense, but Reed and the Yellow Fever Commission realized there was something to the old doctor’s idea. After all, if yellow fever moved around via normal old human contact, why was the pattern of infections so erratic? (One person in a home could have yellow fever while everyone else stayed healthy.) The younger members of Reed’s team even agreed to inoculate themselves with yellow fever to test the theory.

Although these experiments were incredibly risky – Reed’s friend and collaborator Jesse William Lazear died of yellow fever during the study – they helped establish once and for all that mosquitoes, not contact with infected people or their bodily fluids, transmitted yellow fever. The commission further realized that by getting rid of mosquito breeding grounds of standing water around Cuba, the incidence of yellow fever could be slashed. (This ability to curb yellow fever rates would later prove invaluable in the construction of the Panama Canal.)

Honoring the Good Doctor

Reed returned to Washington from Cuba in 1901, and the medical community toasted him as the man who beat yellow fever. (Reed himself was humble and continuously gave credit to the Cuban Dr. Finlay whose theory inspired the commission’s investigation of mosquitoes.) He continued to research yellow fever and lecture on bacteriology until his death the next year from peritonitis following an appendectomy.

When the army opened a new medical center in 1909, who better to name it after than the rock star doctor and bacteriologist who had died just seven years earlier? Walter Reed General Hospital admitted its first 10 patients on May 1, 1909, and the center has been keeping Reed’s name alive and helping brave members of the armed forces return to health ever since.

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April 5, 2011 - 8:34am
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