Military Medicine: The United States Army Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba
It is a sad yet fortunate truth that many great medical discoveries originated in the pain, suffering, and disease of war. Galen, for example, perfected his treatments of tendon and muscle wounds by operating on gladiators. Ambroise Paré developed his revolutionary surgical techniques on the battlefield operating table. James Lind established the connection between the consumption of citrus fruits and the prevention of scurvy while a surgeon with the British navy.
In 1900, the United States Army Yellow Fever Commission (often called simply “The Reed Commission” after its leader, Walter Reed) added to the list of great breakthroughs in military medicine. At experimental stations just outside Havana, Walter Reed and his assistants James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and Jesse Lazear proved that the Aedes aegypti mosquito was the vector for the yellow fever virus. Their work destroyed the popular notion that yellow fever spread by direct contact with infected people or “contaminated” objects and focused the people’s efforts on the eradication of the Aedes mosquito.
The team made its discovery while part of the American occupation force in Cuba in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba was widely considered the primary breeding ground for yellow fever in the western hemisphere, so the post-war occupation seemed to be the perfect opportunity to study, and possibly eradicate, the disease at its source. Moreover, during the war, the U.S. army had been attacked by yellow fever. In fact, yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery accounted for far more casualties than bullets. The American government in Cuba under Governor-General Leonard Wood realized that if Americans were to occupy Cuba “until political order was restored,” something had to be done to protect them from these deadly diseases. Thus, Governor-General Wood eagerly supported the Reed Commission’s research. This exhibit is a brief examination of the Commission’s discovery within its political and social context. It was physically on display at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia, February 25-April 28, 1997.