The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History - Molly Caldwell Crosby (2006)

Part III. Cuba, 1900

Chapter 21. The Etiology of Yellow Fever

With a tribute to Jesse Lazear, Reed presented his paper “The Etiology of Yellow Fever—An Additional Note” to the Pan-American Medical Congress in Havana in February of 1901. In it, he outlined his experiments with the infected clothing house, the mosquito house and the blood inoculations. The hall was packed as Reed read his paper, and listeners even crowded the doorways to hear the monumental news about a disease that had plagued both Cuba and America for two hundred years.

Reed had a habit of emphasizing important points by raising his voice to a high falsetto note. A student once described Reed’s talent at speaking to a crowd: “As a teacher Dr. Reed always seemed to me to be first of all, master of his theme. His information was so much his own—a part of him, as it were—that when it was given to others it flowed forth with unadulterated naturalness, and sparkled with a keen interest which his charming personalitycould not help but lend it.” That day, Reed’s voice rose and fell as he outlined the objectives and results of the Yellow Fever Board. His voice grew higher as he emphatically explained that the control of the disease would be dependent upon the destruction of mosquitoes and protection against their bites. Two months of experiments in the Infected Clothing Building had not yielded one case of yellow fever. Reed had shown that “things”— clothes, trunks, linens, even corpses—could not transmit yellow fever. The tests conducted in the Infected Mosquito Building demonstrated that exposure to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carrying yellow fever—and only exposure to those mosquitoes—spread the virus. And the blood inoculations verified that the virus was carried in human blood.

Reed ended his presentation expressing his regret for the fact that the discovery could only be made through human experimentation. He added that James Carroll, who was present that day, had been the first to succumb to the disease. Carroll received a standing ovation.

The applause roared in the auditorium when Reed finished his presentation, and he received handshakes from several Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, South American and North American physicians. The applause continued to echo in the walls of the lecture hall; it spilled into the hallways where people crowded to hear the monumental paper. It resounded like a heavy rainfall, and Reed listened to the gush of praise and congratulations. It was a sound that he had waited for his whole life, and he soaked it up.

It did not last long. Once again, the Washington Post seemed less than impressed with Dr. Walter Reed. In an article about the Pan-American Medical Conference, it begrudgingly accepted the board’s mosquito theory, but asked, “Why not devote themselves to the eradication of the medium instead of killing more people by way of academic demonstration?”