Thursday, April 30, 2009

Panic! It's the Swine Flu...and Walter Reed

At Right: Walter Reed experiments

I was planning on writing about the Snow Riot this week, but it will have to wait. We’ve got an epidemic to deal with people! The Swine Flu has gotten to the World Bank, and now the Secret Service reportedly has it too!!!!

What should I do? A. Wear a mask? B. Avoid the metro? C. Skip out on tonight’s Nats game? I don’t have a mask, and I’m planning to take the metro to the game, so options B and C are out. I know from writing on the Great Influenza of 1918 that I ought to “avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, and tight gloves.” But that can’t be enough! The paranoia is just too great! I shall console myself by reading up on Walter Reed, for which Walter Reed Hospital is named.

In recent years we’ve associated Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) with the scandal of neglect for wounded American servicemen, but this is a taint on the good name of Walter Reed. Born in 1851, Walter Reed was a precocious student who graduated from the University of Virginia with a medical degree in 1869. Joining the Army Medical Corps in 1875, Reed was sent to remote outposts including Nebraska and Arizona. In 1893 he moved to Washington, DC to serve as a faculty member at the Army Medical School. At the school he studied infectious diseases including malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. His research led him to Havana, Cuba in 1900 to study yellow fever, a serious killer at the time (During the Spanish-American War more soldiers died from yellow fever than combat wounds).

In the late 1800s, it was still believed that yellow fever was transmitted through clothing (i.e. germs on blankets) and from person to person. Despite taking precautions like burning “infected” blankets, yellow fever remained a persistent threat in tropical climes. The idea that yellow fever was transmitted through mosquitoes had been floating around, but it was not until Reed and his US Army Yellow Fever Board decided that the only way to prove the theory was by conducting tests on humans that the theory was confirmed. Essentially, Reed’s experiments involved allowing oneself to be bitten by a mosquito that had bitten a yellow fever victim and then waiting to see if you got yellow fever and died. Sign me up for that!

Reed returned to Washington to present his findings, short one team member who had died while using himself as a test subject. His presentation did not go well, and in fact the Washington Post called it “silly.” And so, more tests were conducted in an isolated camp in Cuba. This time the trials (using paid volunteers) were met with success when Reed presented the new findings at the Pan-American Medical Congress in 1901. Efforts to eradicate mosquitoes in Havana led to a sharp decline in the prevalence of yellow fever.

In recognition for his work Major Walter Reed received honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan. Sadly, his life was cut short in 1902 by complications arising from appendicitis. He died in the hospital named for him, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

All right, I’m getting on the metro where I will be holding my breath and not touching anything.

Sources: The American Experience, “The Great Fever.”

University of Virginia, Phillip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection.

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