Who was Walter Reed? All about the legend after whom the medical facility where Trump is admitted is named

Walter Reed was involved with the experiments that proved that yellow fever is transmitted through mosquito bites and not fomites, as was earlier thought


                            Who was Walter Reed? All about the legend after whom the medical facility where Trump is admitted is named
Walter Reed (Wikimedia Commons)

President Donald Trump was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for Covid-19 on October 2. He has expressed his gratitude to the doctors and staff at the facility on social media.

We earlier reported that the facility located in Bethesda, Maryland, is the US' biggest military medical center and according to The Sun, it houses approximately 7,000 staff workers. The suite that the president is admitted to is called Ward 71 and is reportedly "equipped" for POTUS to keep up with his work. USA Today reported that the suite "is one of six special patient rooms reserved for high-ranking military officers and members of the White House cabinet".

This leads us to the question about who was Walter Reed, after whom the facility was named.

Who was Walter Reed?

According to an article published in Britannica written by E Ashworth Underwood (Director, Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London, 1946–64. Editor of Science, Medicine and History), Walter Reed, was a US Army pathologist and bacteriologist. He was involved with the experiments that proved that yellow fever is transmitted through mosquito bites. The Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, DC, which later merged into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, was named to honor him.

As per the article, in 1866, his family moved to Charlottesville, where Reed had planned to study classics at the University of Virginia. However, after some time in the university, he transferred to the medical faculty. After completing his medical course in nine months, he graduated as a doctor of medicine in 1869, at the age of 17. To gain more experience, he enrolled as a medical student at Bellevue Medical College, New York, and a year later took a second medical degree there. In 1875 he cleared the examination for the Army Medical Corps and was commissioned a first lieutenant.

In 1889, Reed was appointed attending surgeon and examiner of recruits at Baltimore. He had permission to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital and there he took courses in pathology and bacteriology. He was given the posts of curator of the Army Medical Museum in Washington and of professor of bacteriology and clinical microscopy at the newly-established Army Medical School in 1893. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Reed was chosen as chairman of a committee to investigate the spread of typhoid fever in military camps. After completing the committee’s work in 1899, he returned to his duties in Washington. And after a short while, he was involved in the problem of yellow fever.

During the 19th century, it was assumed that yellow fever was spread by fomites — articles such as bedding and clothing that had been used by a yellow-fever patient. In 1881, Cuban physician and epidemiologist Carlos Juan Finlay had started to formulate a theory of insect transmission. Later, for years, he maintained and developed the theory but did not succeed in proving it. In 1896 an Italian bacteriologist, Giuseppe Sanarelli, claimed that he had isolated an organism from yellow-fever patients, which he called Bacillus icteroides. The US Army then appointed Reed and army physician James Carroll to investigate Sanarelli’s bacillus. It also appointed Aristides Agramonte, an assistant surgeon in the US Army, to investigate yellow fever cases in Cuba. Reed and Carroll published their first report in April 1899 and in February 1900 submitted a complete report for publication.

Before the publication of this report, there was an outbreak of yellow fever in the US barracks at Havana, and a commission was appointed to investigate it. The members of the commission included Reed, who was to act as chairman, Carroll, Agramonte, and a bacteriologist, Jesse W Lazear. In 1900, when the commission investigated an outbreak of what was believed to be malaria in barracks 200 miles (300 kilometers) from Havana, Reed found that the disease was actually yellow fever. The Britannica article states that of the nine prisoners in the prison cell of the post, one contracted yellow fever and died, but none of the other eight were affected. Reed and his colleagues assumed that it was possible that this patient might have been bitten by some insect. So, it was decided by Reed that the main work of the commission would be to prove or disprove the agency of an insect intermediate host, as mentioned in Britannica.

In November 1900, a small camp was set up and controlled experiments were carried out on volunteers. Reed proved that yellow fever was caused by the bite of an infected mosquito, Stegomyia fasciata (later renamed Aedes aegypti). He found no confirmation that yellow fever could be conveyed by fomites and he revealed that a house became infected only by the presence of infected mosquitoes. In February 1901, official action in Cuba was begun by US military engineers, led by Major WC Gorgas based on Reed’s findings, and within 90 days Havana was freed from yellow fever.

After his return to Washington, Reed continued teaching. Unfortunately, he died the following year after an operation for appendicitis, as stated in the article.

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