Walter Reed (1851 - 1902)

Walter Reed

1851 - 1902
by David F. Coppedge

You’ve probably heard of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. Let’s hear something about the godly, praying scientist behind the institution.

Walter Reed was the son of a Methodist minister in Virginia. Early in his education, he was noticed for “evidence of the intellectual brilliancy and earnestness of purpose which distinguished him in later years.” These qualities, bred in a Christian home, led to him finding the cause of one of the greatest scourges of mankind. The lifetime achievement he is most remembered for is the identification of the cause of yellow fever and the steps he took to eradicate it.

At that time, yellow fever was the most dreaded disease in early America. Primarily affecting the South and tropical areas, it would sweep through in devastating epidemics, killing thousands. Some 100,000 died in the 18th century, 41,000 in New Orleans alone. We forget how awful disease epidemics were to people who did not understand when and why they came.

A Major in the army, Reed took the knowledge of germ theory proved by Pasteur and Koch and put it to use in the service of mankind. His work was instrumental in the budding fields of epidemiology and immunology.

The faith that Major Walter Reed learned in childhood guided his life work. The National Museum of Health and Medicine website sums up his character and major contribution:

From 1891 to 1893, Reed spent his last western tour at Ft. Snelling, Minn. A man of character, religious by nature, prepared for practice and research, a soldier who had learned to endure hardships, a student and pathologist of the highest caliber, Reed was now ready for the great achievements of his lifetime. He would live for only 51 years, but between 1893 and 1901, a year before his death, he was engaged in some of the most important work in the history of medicine. This took the form of research into the etiology (cause) and epidemiology (spread) of typhoid and yellow fever.

By Christmas of the year 1900, he had found the cause of yellow fever and knew how to prevent it. He wrote his wife that he and his assistants had lifted “the impenetrable veil that surrounded the causation of this most wonderful, dreadful pest of humanity . . . the prayer that has been mine for twenty years, that I might be permitted in some way or at some time to do something good to alleviate human suffering has been granted! A thousand Happy New Years.”

Dr. Walter Reed’s 20-year prayer had indeed been granted. Magnanimously, he gave credit to all his assistants in the paper announcing the discovery. Within two years Reed died of appendicitis before he could be treated.

Reed’s discovery led to the success of the Panama Canal. The scourge of yellow fever in Panama had caused the French to give up on the attempt 30 years earlier. Now, understanding that the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which Reed had identified, was the disease vector, Major William Crawford Gorgas set to work. He rid Cuba of yellow fever in 90 days by eliminating the swampy breeding grounds of the mosquito.

This proved that the technique worked and canal construction was now possible. The monumental project was begun in 1907 and completed in 1914, just as World War 1 was breaking out in Europe. The canal’s strategic value to the United States and to international trade has been incalculable.

The defeat of yellow fever was not Walter Reed’s only important legacy. “Between 1892 and 1902 Reed published 27 papers on original work, encompassing a wide variety of subjects including; cholera, erysipelas, leukemia, malaria, pneumonia, typhoid, vaccinations and yellow fever.” He showed courage by allowing himself to be bitten by a mosquito carrying yellow fever in his research on the cause of the disease.

Though he died fairly young, the Major—the Doctor—is fondly remembered by all who knew him. The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is named in his honor. The website and the Walter Reed Society contain biographies of Major Walter Reed, and a Virginia roots heritage site tells about his life and prayer to be used of God. The best science has always come from men and women with that kind of motivation.

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