Perhaps one of the most recognizable names in American medicine is that of Dr. Walter Reed. Reed would become a symbol of army medicine in the years after his death with the naming of the military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, in his honor. Before that, his work resulted in important advances in patient care and taming one of the most feared diseases of the time, yellow fever.
Reed was born in eastern Virginia in 1851. He was the youngest of five children. His father was a Methodist minister, which required him to travel away from the family home often to preach the gospel at far-flung rural churches. Reed was a brilliant child, and he was part of a family of high achievers, including an older brother who later became a judge and another who also became a preacher. Their education was through a series of private schools and tutors. Their mother died while the children were still young, and the family moved to North Carolina where the children’s maternal grandparents cared for them while their father continued his work for the church.
In 1865, their father remarried, and the family moved back to Virginia. At the age of 15, Reed enrolled at the University of Virginia with his oldest brothers. He devoured books, sometimes only sleeping three or four hours each night as a result. Showing such immense intellect, he breezed through his courses of study. After two years, he convinced a board of professors to let him take his oral exams early. Surprising the board, he aced the tests and earned his medical degree. At the age of 17, he became the youngest doctor in the history of the university.
Much of any new physician’s work is learning to apply knowledge from books and the lab into practical work, what is today called a residency. Though he had an extensive education, there were no hospitals nearby for apply these new skills. Reed traveled to New York City and continued his studies at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College, earning a second medical degree within a year. Reed began working at several different hospitals, studying pediatric medicine as well as internal medicine and observing up close the effects of deep poverty on the health of the people in the city’s worst boroughs. To see such suffering on such a large scale greatly distressed the young doctor -- still a teenager. Worse still, he saw how little some of his own colleagues knew about medicine or how to treat patients.
By the early 1870s, he was working with the New York Board of Health, which increased his own appreciation of the importance of educating the public about medical issues. He was also courting Emilie Lawrence, the daughter of a North Carolina planter. These experiences prompted him to change how he approached medicine. He knew he wanted to work as a surgeon and as a researcher while still having a steady income. In 1874, at the age of 23, he enlisted in the army.
Reed quickly passed the army’s qualifying exams and was commissioned as a lieutenant. He married in 1876 as he was sent to a post in the Arizona Territory. They would have two children and adopt a Native American orphan. Reed made sanitation a priority at army posts and on the reservations to stop the spread of disease. He became a popular physician at army forts, on reservations, and made house calls to frontier residents.
In 1880, Reed was promoted to captain and reassigned to Baltimore. There, Reed began working with one of the foremost minds in public health and the study of microbes and epidemics, Dr. William H. Welch. Welch was one of the co-founders of the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School and was its first dean. Reed began conducting research into outbreaks of typhoid fever and yellow fever, both serious problems in cities and army camps across America.
Reed returned to Baltimore after another series of tours at frontier outposts in 1892. After completing a new round of medical studies at Johns Hopkins, in 1893, Reed was promoted to major and appointed as professor in the new fields bacteriology and clinical microscopy at the Army Medical School in Washington, DC, and also began working as a professor at the medical school at Columbian University (which is now George Washington University). The army also made him curator of the Army Medical Museum, an important collection of artifacts and records on advances in medicine.
Now secure in his positions as a professor, he worked to educate doctors in the new science of germs and prevention of epidemics as well as advances in other medical fields. He was shaping the minds of a new generation of physicians while finally having the time and resources to conduct the research he had long dreamt to do. Over the next several years, he published dozens of important articles, leading to new insights into infectious disease.
By the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Reed was already recognized as a leading figure in the study of bacteria and epidemics. His expertise would be crucial in the next few years in his groundbreaking studies into yellow fever, studies that would come to save thousands of lives.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.