By Laura McNulty and Ginny A. Roth
Today would have been Major Walter Reed’s 162nd birthday. Reed, shown in this picture with his daughter Emilie Mabel “Blossom” Reed, is well known for his work in discovering how typhoid and yellow fever spread. The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center also carries his name in honor of his achievements.
In 1869, at the age of 17, Reed graduated from the medical school at the University of Virginia and is still the youngest person to have ever received a medical degree from the University. A year later he received a second medical degree from the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York. Reed became very interested in public health, and would remain so for the rest of his life. At the age of 22, he was appointed as one of five inspectors on the Brooklyn Board of Health. In 1874, Reed met his future wife, Emilie Lawrence, in North Carolina and shortly thereafter he decided to join the Army. He was appointed as an assistant surgeon with the rank of first lieutenant and was sent out to the American west. There, Reed’s two children, Emilie Mabel and Walter Lawrence, were born.
Reed was promoted to the rank of major and brought to Washington, DC by George Miller Sternberg, the Army Surgeon General at the time. Reed was named the curator of the Army Medical Museum (now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine) and professor of clinical microscopy at the newly established Army Medical School (now the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research). In addition, Reed taught classes about bacteriology at the Columbian University, which is now known as George Washington University.
Following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Reed, unknowingly at the time, would begin the work that would make him famous. Typhoid and yellow fever were devastating soldiers both in the U.S. and in Cuba when Reed was appointed head of a board of officers to investigate the epidemics. The Typhoid Board discovered how typhoid was spread (through contaminated water) and was instrumental in implementing measures to clean up bases and training camps which resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of typhoid cases. In Cuba, Reed led the Yellow Fever Commission and discovered that it was spread by mosquitos that had bitten people infected with yellow fever and subsequently spread to others.
In 1901, Reed returned to the United States and resumed his teaching positions and was appointed as the librarian of the Surgeon General’s Library. Reed would die in 1902 due to complications following an appendectomy. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On May 1, 1909, the Walter Reed General Hospital opened its doors in Washington, DC with only 10 patients. In 1923, General John J. Pershing signed the War Department Order that created the Army Medical Center. On the 100th anniversary of Reed’s birth, the hospital and the Medical Center were combined into one complex and became known as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after its consolidation with the National Naval Medical Center). In addition, Congress created the Walter Reed Medal in 1923. The medal is awarded every three years in recognition of great achievements in the field of tropical diseases.
Laura McNulty is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently working at the National Library of Medicine as a Pathways Student. Beginning September 2013, she will be working as a conservation intern at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA.
Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.