Introduction to the History of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission

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This post will be the first in an ongoing series that will tell the history of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission and the historical context of its work. The posts are and will become pages of a revamped online exhibit about the Commission. Some of the posts will contain content that has been previously published by the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, while others will contain new content. 

Walter Reed sailing to Cuba, circa 1900. Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection 1806-1995, Box-folder 87:39, Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Walter Reed sailing to Cuba, circa 1900. Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection 1806-1995, Box-folder 87:39, Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Here I have been sitting reading that most wonderful book — La Roche on Yellow Fever — written in 1853. Forty-seven years later it has been permitted to me & my assistants to lift the impenetrable veil that has surrounded the causation of this most dreadful pest of humanity and to put it on a rational & scientific basis.” —Walter Reed in a letter he wrote to his wife at midnight, December 31, 1900 [1]

In Cuba, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission had demonstrated irrefutably that the mosquito was the vector of transmission for yellow fever. Cuban scientist Carlos J. Finlay had first proposed such a connection in 1881, but had not been able to prove his theory conclusively to the world scientific community.

The members of the Commission, Walter Reed, James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and particularly Johns Hopkins scientist Jessie Lazear, had sought Finlay’s assistance to clarify and ultimately test the mosquito theory. Indeed in the very early stages of the investigation, Lazear lost his life to a case of yellow fever, very likely experimental in origin.

Deeply dismayed at the loss of their friend and colleague, but intrigued by the very real possibility of a solution within reach, the Commission designed an experimental protocol which would withstand strict scientific scrutiny. They obtained permission from the military leadership to establish an experimental facility — which they named Camp Lazear — on the outskirts of Havana and implemented a bold study using human subjects. Despite the risk, the experiment required human subjects because yellow fever was not known to have an affect on any other species. In 1900, human experimentation was not a new idea, but unlike most other studies of that period, the subjects at Camp Lazear would be volunteers. They would have full knowledge of the experiment and its potential consequences.

As Walter Reed wrote to his wife, the experiments proved dramatically successful. Mosquito eradication programs were soon implemented throughout the Americas and yellow fever was largely conquered in the Western Hemisphere.

Sources:

[1] Letter from Walter Reed to Emilie Lawrence Reed,  December 31, 1900. Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection 1806-1995, Box-folder 22:62. Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

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