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American History: April '97 Letters

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 1997 
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I submit that readers of your article, "Did the Mosquito Do It?" [January/February 1997 issue] should also turn to "The Myth of Walter Reed," a section in Lawrence Altman's 1987 book Who Goes First? to decide for themselves whether Jesse Lazear should not have been the central figure in your "Yellow Fever Mystery Solved." Also, a biography of Lazear by J. A. del Regato, M.D., in the Fall 1971 issue of Columbia Medical School's alumni magazine adds facts not present in your article.

Walter Reed, upon his return to Washington from a Pennsylvania vacation, learns of Lazear's death on September 25, 1900. His letter of the same day to the chief surgeon in Cuba shows that he worries about getting yellow fever once back in Cuba–not from a mosquito bite but from infected clothing and bedding!

Back in Cuba on October 4, after a two-month absence, Reed is given yellow-fever victim Lazear's pocket notebook containing the key to successful experimental production of yellow fever via mosquito bites. Utilizing the notebook entries–"almost exclusively," stresses del Regato–Reed composes a scientific paper stating that the mosquito "serves as the intermediate host for the parasite of yellow fever," and presents it to an American Public Health Association meeting on October 23, 1900.

Your article then reports at length on Reed's confirming tests and hails him as "a hero whose work was just beginning to be fully appreciated." Some medical historians point out that as chairman of the yellow-fever board, or in modern parlance, as its principal investigator, Reed would get credit for his team's discoveries. No principal investigator of today, however, would risk invalidating this privilege by secreting scientific records, which del Regato hints Reed did: "[Lazear's] valuable pocket notebook . . . has been lost or perhaps deliberately destroyed: presumably in Reed's possession at the time of his death, there is at present no clue as to what became of it."

Arsene Eglis
New York City

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Should readers turn to Altman's book or Dr. del Regato's fine 1971 article about Dr. Jesse Lazear, they would find that Walter Reed remains the central figure in this extraordinary story.

Dr. Lazear tragically died of yellow fever early in the investigation; at a time when only one indisputable case of the disease had been experimentally transmitted from a mosquito to a man. The mosquito theory was still just a theory and transmission by infected clothes and other objects was still considered possible. Hence, Reed, not yet a true believer in the mosquito theory, wrote to the chief surgeon in Cuba, Major Keen, concerning his return to Havana, "I shall expect to take up my own quarters . . . provided you think that there is no probability of that being the infected area [where Drs. Carrol and Lazear got their infections]."

Despite his doubts, Major Reed continued to pursue the mosquito theory. He was and remains the central character in any story about the solving of the yellow-fever mystery because as chairman of the board, he put his good name and reputation on the line. Especially so when he approved the use of human subjects in the experiments. As with all successful scientists, he did not work in a vacuum. He built on the theories and proofs of others, like Drs. Carlos Juan Finlay, Henry J. Carter, and Lazear, to develop his own theories and to design experiments to prove them.

The greatest work of the yellow-fever board came after Lazear's death, in experiments designed and executed by Dr. Reed and the others. The results of these experiments are still undisputed–one species of mosquito transmits yellow fever, not infected clothes and objects.

Lazear's work and his notebook, the disposition of which is unknown, were invaluable to Walter Reed. As chair of the commission, he used the notebook to prepare the paper he presented to the American Public Health Association meeting in October 1900. In retrospect, we know the theory he presented about mosquito transmission was right. At the time, he was ridiculed. The Washington Post called the theory, " . . . the silliest beyond compare."

It seems a fact and fault of history that as time passes, we tend to remember or focus on one or two key figures in an event, while those of the supporting cast become less well known. I tried to show the work of the board as a collaborative effort and to give credit to the many supporting players. But clearly, the investigations to prove that the mosquito did it had a clear, strong leader, and he was Walter Reed.

James V. Writer
Rockville, Maryland


Abraham Lincoln and Noah Webster were not what you might call unintelligent or uneducated men. Yet you felt compelled to [sic.] them both in your January/February 1997 issue for their spelling of "musquetoes." Fie on thee! Surely readers of a history magazine can accept historical spellings. It [sic.]ens me to think what you would do to some healthy Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare.

Donald R. DeWitt
Flagstaff, Arizona


Regardless of the subject matter that you may choose to print, please keep one thought in mind–tell it the way it really happened.

As a Black man, I found the story on Jackie Robinson to be interesting, inspiring, and educational for all Americans.

Irvin Scott
Athens, Pennsylvania

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