Major Walter Reed stroked his brown mustache as he sat in his headquarters in Havana, Cuba. It was August 1900 and 48-year-old Walter had to solve a vexing problem: What was causing Yellow Fever, or commonly called Yellow Jack? And then he had to figure out how to stop it. Already Yellow Fever had claimed the lives of more American service men than all combat during the Spanish-American war.
Walter had been appointed as the leader of the Yellow Fever Board, and had arrived in Cuba on June 25, 1900. Another devastating outbreak was spreading across Havana. While Walter had made a name for himself as a gifted medical investigator, he was struggling to figure out how to solve the Yellow Jack mystery.
Walter turned to his associates for help in solving this problem. The Yellow Fever Board consisted of Walter, James Carroll, Jesse W. Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte. Together they had at least ruled out the possibility of the disease being a bacteria. They had helped to clean up Havana, and thereby reduced all other diseases in the tropical city, but Yellow Jack continued to infect more and more people.
“It has to be something that’s impacted by weather,” said James Carroll, as he removed his spectacles and wiped his forehead. “It spreads up the eastern seaboard and Mississippi River Valley like clockwork each year.”
“And it’s always warm here,” added Aristides, a Cuban American surgeon who also wore a mustache. “It seems to come in waves, but it doesn’t have anything to do with proximity to other yellow fever victims. One person in a group of ten could get it, and then three individuals that seem to cross the same bridge could all get it, even though they have no more contact than a passing hello.”
“Water seems to be the most common factor, but as you proved in your previous studies, drinking the water doesn’t cause Yellow Fever,” said 34-year-old Jesse, who wore a full, dark beard. He took a drink of water and then continued. “It’s almost like it chooses who to infect.”
Aristides perked up at this statement. He had heard of a Cuban doctor that was often referred to as the “Mosquito Man,” because of his theories about Yellow Fever.
“There is a man, Dr. Carlos Finlay, who may have some information we haven’t considered,” said the 32-year-old Aristides. “Many people in the scientific community have disregarded his claims since his methods are more crude, but maybe he has some useful information that will help our commission.”
“Let’s go and see this man at once,” said Walter, eager for a new perspective that could help in their quest.
Carlos had presented his thoughts in 1881, nearly 20 years before, but he didn’t have solid data to back it up, so many dismissed it as crazy. But Walter, who listened and evaluated all points of view, saw some validity to Carlos’ theory, and wanted to try his own controlled experiment.
Carlos was able to give them mosquito eggs. Then once those eggs hatched, Walter allowed the mosquitoes to bite men with Yellow Fever. He had one more obstacle to overcome though. Yellow Fever didn’t seem to bother most animals that were usually used in tests, and time was of the essence since people were still dying. In fact, in September, while Walter made a quick trip back to Washington D.C. to report on his malaria research from two years before, Dr. Jesse Lazear was bitten and died from Yellow Fever. So when Walter got back, they performed the experiment with enlisted men, giving them full disclosure of the risk of death. Living in Havana already put them at risk of dying from Yellow Jack, so they were able to get 22 people to volunteer to be bitten.
None of those 22 volunteers died, and the research was able to conclusively show the mosquito as the carrier of Yellow Fever. Over the next year, the sanitation department was able to eradicate the disease by eliminating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Major Walter Reed was a gifted man and eventually he may have come to the right conclusion. But how many more people would have died before then. Walter died just two years later, so maybe he wouldn’t have seen the disease controlled in his lifetime. But by relying on and listening to his team, they were able to make a medical breakthrough that controlled a disease that had scared millions of people since the mid-1600s. Had Walter been prideful, he could have dismissed the ideas of a local doctor, whom others had dismissed. Instead he not only listened to him, but gave him credit for the discovery.
And then you have the team of volunteers. I don’t have time to discuss the conditions of the study, but one group of men had to spend a lot of time in a warm, smelly room surrounded by and laying on filthy sheets and clothes of yellow fever victims. They played a part that Walter couldn’t do alone, but was critical.
Who is your team?
Do you listen to them? Do they listen to you? Are you a group of individuals, or a cohesive unit that values all its members?