The Man Who Beat Yellow Fever

Sunday was the birthday of Walter Reed, an American medical researcher born in 1851 who is celebrated for his work on yellow fever. During the Spanish-American War, more soldiers had died from the disease than in combat. So in 1900, Major Reed, who was a professor at the Army Medical School, led a four-man Commission of the United States Army on yellow fever in Havana, Cuba. The commission confirmed that yellow fever, like malaria, was transmitted by mosquitoes. A scientist on the commission allowed himself to be bitten, suffered several days of high fever, and died.

Further experiments on soldier volunteers produced 22 cases of experimental fever: 14 from mosquito bites, six from injections of blood, and two from injections of filtered serum. Those results suggested that the disease organism was not a bacterium, but rather a nonfilterable organism, now known as a virus. Yellow fever was then eradicated by destroying mosquito breeding grounds.

[Source: Trevor I. Williams, Ed., A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (John Wiley & Sons, New York, ed. 3, 1982).]