Walter Reed

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This article is about the U.S. army surgeon. For other people and things with the name Walter Reed, see Walter Reed (disambiguation).
Walter Reed
Walter Reed
Born (1851-09-13)September 13, 1851
Gloucester County, Virginia, United States
Died November 22, 1902(1902-11-22) (aged 51)
Washington, D.C.
Occupation Military physician
Spouse(s) Emilie Lawrence (m. 1876)
Children Walter Lawrence Reed was born at Ft. Apache on December 4, 1877 and daughter Emilie Reed, called Blossom, was born at Ft. Omaha on July 12, 1883, one adopted Native American daughter (Susie Reed)
Parents Lemuel Sutton Reed and Pharaba White

Major Walter Reed, M.D., (September 13, 1851 – November 22, 1902) was a U.S. Army physician who in 1901 led the team that postulated and confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by a particular mosquito species, rather than by direct contact. This insight gave impetus to the new fields of epidemiology and biomedicine, and most immediately allowed the resumption and completion of work on the Panama Canal (1904–1914) by the United States. Reed followed work started by Carlos Finlay and directed by George Miller Sternberg ("first U.S. bacteriologist").


Walter Reed was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, to Lemuel Sutton Reed (a Methodist minister) and Pharaba White. During his youth, the family resided at Murfreesboro, North Carolina. His childhood home is included in the Murfreesboro Historic District.[1]

Walter Reed Birthplace

After two year-long classes at the University of Virginia, Reed completed the M.D. degree in 1869, five months before he turned 19 (he was the youngest then, and is still today the youngest student of the University of Virginia to receive an MD degree).[2] Reed then enrolled at the New York University's Bellevue Hospital Medical College in Manhattan, New York, where he obtained a second M.D. in 1870. After interning at several New York City hospitals, he worked for the New York Board of Health until 1875. He married Emilie (born Emily) Lawrence on April 26, 1876 and took her West with him. Later, Emilie would give birth to a son and a daughter and the couple would adopt a Native American girl while posted at frontier camps.[3]

With his youth limiting his influence, Reed joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps, both for its professional opportunities and the modest financial security it could provide.The army medical corps enlisted him as an assistant surgeon. He spent much of his Army career until 1893 at different postings in the American West, at one point looking after several hundred Apache Native Americans, including Geronimo. While at these different postings, Reed became a little bit behind in medical practices. During one of his last tours, he completed advanced coursework in pathology and bacteriology in the Johns Hopkins University Hospital Pathology Laboratory.

Reed joined the faculty of the George Washington University School of Medicine and the newly opened Army Medical School in Washington, D.C. in 1893, where he held the professorship of Bacteriology and Clinical Microscopy. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he actively pursued medical research projects and served as the curator of the Army Medical Museum, which later became the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). These positions that Reed took allowed him to break free from the fringes of the medical world.

In 1896 Reed distinguished himself as a medical investigator. He proved that yellow fever among enlisted men stationed near the Potomac River wasn't a result from drinking the river water. He showed officials that the enlisted men who got yellow fever had a habit of taking trails through the local swampy woods at night. This was unlike their yellow fever-free fellow officers. Reed also proved that the local civilians drinking from the Potomac River had no relation to the disease.[4]

Reed traveled to Cuba to study diseases in U.S. Army encampments there. He was appointed chairman of a panel formed in 1898 to investigate an epidemic of typhoid fever in large U.S. Army camps in Cuba fighting the Spanish-American War. He and his colleagues showed that contact with fecal matter and food or drink contaminated by flies was the cause of typhoid fever. Yellow fever also became a problem for the Army during the Spanish-American War, felling thousands of soldiers in Cuba.

In May 1900, Reed, a major, returned to Cuba when he was appointed head of the Army board charged by Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg to examine tropical diseases including yellow fever. Sternberg was one of the founders of bacteriology during this time of great advances in medicine due to widespread acceptance of Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease, as well as the methods of studying bacteria developed by Robert Koch.

During Reed's tenure with the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba, the board both confirmed the transmission by mosquitoes and disproved the common belief that yellow fever could be transmitted by clothing and bedding soiled by the body fluids and excrement of yellow fever sufferers – articles known as fomites.

The board conducted many of its dramatic series of experiments at Camp Lazear, named in November 1900 for Reed's assistant and friend Jesse William Lazear, who had died two months earlier of yellow fever while a member of the Commission.

The risky but fruitful research work was done with human volunteers, including some of the medical personnel such as Lazear and Clara Maass who allowed themselves to be deliberately infected. The research work with the disease under Reed's leadership was largely responsible for stemming the mortality rates from yellow fever during the building of the Panama Canal, something that had confounded the French attempts to build in that region only 20 years earlier.

Although Reed received much of the credit in history books for "beating" yellow fever, Reed himself credited Dr. Carlos Finlay with the discovery of the yellow fever vector, and thus how it might be controlled. Reed often cited Finlay's papers in his own articles and gave him credit for the discovery, even in his personal correspondence.The Cuban physician was a strong advocate of the transmission theory as the cause of yellow fever and discovered the type of mosquito that transmits yellow fever. However, his unsophisticated experiments that proved this were discounted by many, but were the basis of Reed's research.[5]

Following Reed's return from Cuba in 1901, he continued to speak and publish on yellow fever. He received honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan in recognition of his seminal work.

Major General Walter Reed, circa 1901

In November 1902, Reed's appendix ruptured; he died on November 22, 1902, of the resulting peritonitis, at age 51. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

~ Dr. Walter Reed ~
Issue of 1940

A Collection of his papers regarding typhoid fever studies is held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.[6] Philip Showalter Hench, a Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine in 1950, maintained a long interest in Walter Reed and yellow fever. His collection of thousands of items--documents, photographs, and artifacts--is at the University of Virginia in the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection.[7] More than 7,500 of these items, including several hundred letters written by Reed himself, are accessible online at the web exhibit devoted to this Collection.[8]


Reed's breakthrough in yellow fever research is widely considered a milestone in biomedicine, opening new vistas of research and humanitarianism.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ John B. Wells, III (November 1970). "Murfreesboro Historic District" (pdf). National Register of Historic Places - Nomination and Inventory. North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Retrieved 2015-01-01. 
  2. ^ Pierce J.R., J, Writer. 2005. Yellow Jack: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered its Deadly Secrets. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-471-47261-1
  3. ^ Crosby, Molly Caldwell (2006). The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History, p. 134. New York: Berkley Books. ISBN 0-425-21202-5
  4. ^ "Walter Reed". American History (ABC-CLIO). 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2013. 
  5. ^ "Reed Discovers the Cause of Yellow Fever". Great Scientific Achievements. Salem Press. 1999. p. History Reference Center. 
  6. ^ "Walter Reed Papers 1888-1972". National Library of Medicine. 
  7. ^ "A Guide to the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection". University of Virginia Health Sciences Library. 
  8. ^ "Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection". University of Virginia Health Sciences Library. 
  9. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 

Other sources[edit]

  • Bean, William B., Walter Reed: A Biography, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982.
  • Bean, William B., "Walter Reed and Yellow Fever", JAMA 250.5 (August 5, 1983): 659–62.
  • Pierce J.R., J, Writer. 2005. Yellow Jack: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered its Deadly Secrets. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-471-47261-1

External links[edit]