Sept. 13 marks the 161st anniversary of Maj. Walter Reed’s birth.
Born in 1851 in Belroi, Va., to Lemuel Sutton Reed, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Pharaba White, Reed achieved fame for leading the team that confirmed yellow fever is transmitted by a particular mosquito.
“He was highly motivated,” said retired Col. (Dr.) John R. Pierce, in the PBS documentary “The Great Fever,” which tells of Reed’s medical team’s efforts to eradicate yellow fever. Pierce is a medical inspector for the Veterans Health Administration and historian for the Walter Reed Society. While on active duty in the Army, he worked more than 15 years in various leadership positions at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC).
“[Maj. Walter Reed] worked most of his life with the idea that there was going to be an opportunity for him to make a big difference,” said Pierce, who co-authored a book with Jim Writer about yellow fever and the discoveries made by Reed and his team in Cuba during the early 1900s.
Reed, the youngest of five children, completed his medical degree at the University of Virginia in 1869, two months before he turned 18 (then the youngest graduate in the history of the university's medical school), Pierce explained. Reed earned a second medical degree a year later at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York, and joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1875.
Writer described Reed as “a frontier doctor” who had spent most of his career on the frontier in Arizona, Kansas and Nebraska.
“He [took] a class in bacteriology at Johns Hopkins, and it [transformed] him, [brought] him into contact with the new science of medicine. He [moved] from this frontier doctor, working in small Army posts, and [became] a scientist,” Writer said.
Reed joined the faculty of George Washington University School of Medicine and the Army Medical School in Washington, D.C. in 1893, where he was professor of bacteriology and clinical microscopy. He also did medical research and served as curator of the Army Medical Museum, which later became the National Museum of Health and Medicine, now located at Forest Glen in Silver Spring, Md.
He then went to Cuba in 1899 to study disease in U.S. Army camps, where yellow fever was a problem during the Spanish-American War. In May 1900, Army Surgeon General George Sternberg appointed him to head the board charged with studying infectious disease in Cuba. That team would prove yellow fever was transmitted by the common domestic mosquito, aedes aegypti, and disprove the disease was transmitted by the soiled clothing and bedding of yellow fever sufferers, articles known as fomites, Pierce explained.
“The results of this research were quickly applied ... with remarkable success, essentially ending yellow fever’s long reign of terror,” Pierce added.
Reed returned to Washington to assume other military duties, and over the course of the next year, he received recognition and acclaim for his scientific work, Pierce continued.
“However, in the fall of 1902, he felt ill and made the self-diagnosis of appendicitis. He visited his friend Maj. William C. Borden, commander of the Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C., who after a period of observation, operated on Reed on Nov. 17. Borden was shocked to find his condition much worse than expected. Reed developed peritonitis; without antibiotics, it was hopeless,” said Pierce.”
Reed died on Nov. 22, 1902, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was 51.
“Borden, devastated by Reed’s death, dedicated himself to honoring his friend,” Pierce stated. “Borden worked for several years to raise funds for a new hospital to replace the inadequate one at Washington Barracks (now Fort Lesley J. McNair). He also worked to have the new hospital named after his friend, Walter Reed.
“In his desire to honor Reed, Borden succeeded in ways he could not have imagined,” Pierce added.
On May 1, 1909, Walter Reed General Hospital opened. In September 1951, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Walter Reed, Walter Reed General Hospital along with the additional buildings now on the installation, was renamed WRAMC. In 1977, a new, larger hospital was dedicated at WRAMC.
In 2011, WRAMC integrated with the former National Naval Medical Center to form Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the legacy of Maj. Walter Reed continues.