There was a time when every school child could recite the tale of how Maj. Walter Reed proved the Cuban physician Carlos Finlay’s theory that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever to human beings.
From colonial days to the late 19th century, yellow fever plagued much of the United States. These epidemics were horrific events heralded by undertakers wheeling out large wagons in the streets, shouting, “Bring Out Your Dead!” But yellow fever was hardly unique to the United States. The virus causing it, flativirus, thrives and infects wherever the Aedes aegypti mosquito (and a few of its relatives) propagate and where swampy land abounds, including South and North America, Africa, southern Europe and much of Africa.
The Panama Canal, one of humankind’s greatest feats of engineering, could not have been completed if yellow fever was not outwitted first.
For some, a bout with yellow fever is simply a self-limiting one of aches, pains, loss of appetite, headaches and fever. But in more severe cases (about 15 percent) it can cause abdominal pain, extensive liver damage, jaundice or yellow skin, bleeding, kidney damage and even death.
The yellow fever-Walter Reed legend was once the “poster child” of American contagion stories. So ubiquitous was this tale that it even served as the basis for a 1933 hit Broadway play, “Yellow Jack,” and the 1936 MGM motion picture of the same title, not to mention dozens of juvenile biographies and cartoons such as a March 1946 issue of Science Comics featuring a colorful account of “Walter Reed: The Man Who Conquered Yellow Fever.” One of his biographers, Howard Kelly of Johns Hopkins, called Reed’s work “the greatest American medical discovery.” At the very least, it was the U.S. Army’s greatest contribution to the nation’s health and the reason why its premier military hospital in Washington, D.C., was named for Reed. The man behind the legend died in 1902, at the age of 51, of an abdominal infection after the removal of his appendix.