You’ve probably heard of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. Now, it’s time to learn something about the man behind the institution.
Walter Reed was the son of a Methodist minister in Virginia. Early in his education, he was noticed for “evidence of the intellectual brilliancy and earnestness of purpose which distinguished him in later years.” These qualities, bred in a Christian home, led to him finding the cause of one of the greatest scourges of mankind. The lifetime achievement he is most remembered for is the identification of the cause of yellow fever and the steps he took to eradicate it.
Yellow fever was the most dreaded disease in early America. Primarily affecting the South and tropical areas, it would sweep through in devastating epidemics, killing thousands. Some 100,000 died in the 18th century, 41,000 in New Orleans alone. We forget how awful disease epidemics were to people who did not understand when and why they came.
A Major in the army, Reed took the knowledge of germ theory proved by Pasteur and Koch and put it to use in the service of mankind. His work was instrumental in the budding fields of epidemiology and immunology.
By Christmas of the year 1900, he had found the cause of yellow fever and knew how to prevent it. He wrote his wife that he and his assistants had lifted “the impenetrable veil that surrounded the causation of this most wonderful, dreadful pest of humanity … the prayer that has been mine for twenty years, that I might be permitted in some way or at some time to do something good to alleviate human suffering has been granted! A thousand Happy New Years.”
Dr. Walter Reed’s 20-year prayer had been granted. Magnanimously, he gave credit to all his assistants in the paper announcing the discovery. Within two years Reed died of appendicitis before he could be treated….
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