Major Walter Reed, MD (1851 – 1902)

Walter Reed Medical, Walter Reed Military Hospital

Major Walter Reed, MD

US Army Medical Department / Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Everybody knows that a military medic is always at the ready to save lives. They’re heroes in the eyes of every wounded soldier. Did you know one military medic even saved the Panama Canal?

No one of the powers that be thought poorly of the idea of a canal cutting across the Isthmus of Panama. Such a canal would shorten a sea voyage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific by thousands of treacherous miles encircling the continent of South America and getting dangerously close to Antarctica. The interest in such a project was one of those rare ones that unites people all around the world and had been the subject of speculation for hundreds of years.

The French thought they had the necessary manpower and technology to dig such a canal in the 1880s and they were probably right. The engineering and architecture seemed sound but tropical diseases had been omitted from the plan. Tens of thousands of military men and laborers succumbed to the ravages of yellow fever and malaria during work on the canal. The project was abandoned.

By 1900, the US Army was ready to try it again, this time with the awareness that tropical diseases, especially yellow fever and malaria, were a very crucial part of the overall canal plan. Just 20 years earlier, Cuban physician Carlos Finlay had discovered mosquitos transmit the parasite that causes yellow fever, not the human-to-human contact as had been previously understood.

Maj. Reed and his staff of military medics set to work with Finlay in Cuba on developing treatment options based on Finlay’s finding and creating a system of mosquito-control measures that would minimize risk of infection. As many as 24 members of his research staff infected themselves with the parasite for the sake of experiment. Construction of the canal, lasting from 1904 until 1914, was an engineering success but it was a milestone in medicine, too.

The public health awareness program developed by Maj. Reed is said to have saved thousands of lives of US military personnel and canal workers alike. It formed the blueprint for public awareness programs today. It saved the canal project, too, because without his medical breakthroughs, further work on the canal probably would not have been started. His efforts on yellow fever were the catalyst for the development of both biomedicine and epidemiology.

Appendicitis claimed the life of this military hero on November 22, 1902; he was 51 years old. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery but his legacy to the military and to medicine live on.

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center opened in 1909 in Washing, DC. In 2011, it will combine services with the Bethesda Naval Hospital to become the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.