Walter Reed (13 Sep. 1851-23 Nov. 1902)

To commemorate the imminent closing of the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I think it’s appropriate for us to give some thought to the life of the man for whom the institution was named. – JLC

Walter Reed was born in Gloucester County, VA, son of Lemuel Sutton Reed (1819-1897), a Methodist minister, and his wife, Pharaba (White) Reed (1816-1866). In 1866, the family moved to Charlottesville, VA, and in 1867, Walter entered the University of Virginia, attended sessions 44-45 (1867-1869), and graduated with an M.D. at age 18, the youngest graduate of the University’s medical school. In 1870, Reed earned another medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York.

Reed became interested in public health while he was employed by the Brooklyn (NY) Board of Health in 1873-1874. In 1875, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps. In 1876, he married Emilie Blackwell Lawrence (1856-1950) of North Carolina, and began a posting in the Arizona Territory, the first of many in the American West. The couple had two children, Walter Lawrence Reed (who became Inspector General of the Army at the rank of Major General) and Emilie Mabel “Blossom” Reed. The Reeds also adopted a Native American girl, whose name is unknown, while in the West.

During a posting in Baltimore in 1890-1891, Walter Reed finished a course of study in pathology and bacteriology at Johns Hopkins University, and in 1893, he was appointed to the faculty of the Army Medical School as professor of Bacteriology and Clinical Microscopy. His research interests included typhoid, yellow fever, malaria, and cholera.

In 1900, Reed traveled to Cuba to study yellow fever, and was appointed the leader of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission which in 1901 discovered the way the disease was transmitted. In the paper, “The Etiology of Yellow Fever: An Additional Note,” by Walter Reed, James Carroll, and Aristedes Agramonte, the most important conclusion was that the “spread of yellow fever can be most effectually controlled by measures directed to the destruction of mosquitoes.” This discovery is considered one of the most profound in tropical medicine.

In November 1902, Reed suffered a ruptured appendix which was not treated promptly, and he died of peritonitis in Washington, D. C. on 23 Nov. 1902. Walter Reed, Emilie, and both of their children are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1909, the Army named its premiere medical research facility after Dr. Walter Reed. In 1929, an Act of Congress created the Walter Reed Medal, a one-time military decoration which was awarded to the 24 Americans on the team that defeated yellow fever. In 1936, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene awarded its first Walter Reed Medal to Mrs. Walter Reed and the Rockefeller Foundation. This medal is awarded every third year to recognize distinguished achievements in the field of tropical medicine. Recipients of the medal over the years include Albert Sabin, creator of the polio vaccine; Nobel Prize winner Thomas Weller; Willy Burgdorfer, who discovered the pathogen that causes Lyme disease; and Richard L. Guerrant, a University of Virginia researcher and internationally recognized expert on infectious diseases.

For additional information on this fascinating topic, see the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever On-line Collection which is made available in full text online by the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia.


  • American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “Walter Reed Medal.” [webpage] (Accessed 7/27/2011)
  • “Dr. Richard L. Guerrant Receives Walter Reed Medal from American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.” Dec. 15, 2008. (Accessed 7/27/2011).
  • “Yellow Fever and the Reed Commission.” c2007 [website online]. (Accessed 5/17/2015).
  • Reed, Walter, James Carroll, and Aristedes Agramonte, “The Etiology of Yellow Fever: An Additional Note.” Journal of the American Medical Association, v. 36, no.8 (1901), p. 431-440. (Accessed 7/28/2011)
  • Staples, J. Erin, and Thomas P. Monath, “Yellow Fever: 100 Years of Discovery.” JAMA, v. 300, no.8 (Aug. 27, 2008), p 960-962. (Accessed 7/27/2011)
  • Tombstones of the Reed family, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. [database online]. (Accessed 7/27/2011).
  • Reed, Joseph Jr. Mike Reed’s Family Tree [database online]. (Accessed 7/27/2011).
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