Yellow Fever

By Kevin Baker

Save for a tiny insect known as the Stegomyia fasciata the country relinquishing control of the Panama Canal in 1999 might well have been France. Stegomyia fasciata (also known as Aedes aegypti) is a mosquito, and it was as much this bug as financial skullduggery and technological shortcomings that defeated Ferdinand de Lesseps’ attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Some 20,000 workers, or one-third of the labor force, died during the French attempt to dig the canal in 1881-1889.

The mosquito carried yellow fever—the deadly “yellow jack” that had long run up death rates in Latin America, and among North Americans living or traveling there. Its victims included even Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist, struck down after becoming consul general in Ecuador.

The yellow jack first became a major problem for the United States in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Troops occupying Cuba found themselves devastated by the disease, which attacks the liver, turning the skin yellow, raising the body temperature, and making victims violently ill before lapsing into a usually fatal coma. Even survivors were often left damaged for life, and no one had come close to finding a cure. No one was even sure what caused the disease, or how it spread.

The U.S. Army had one: Major Walter Reed, and the four-man commission of doctors he headed. Their solution was one of the bravest in the histories of both medical science and the United States Armed Forces. It was to test the disease on their own bodies.

It had long been intuited by an eccentric, European-Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes—a theory widely ridiculed in more conventional medical circles. Reed, his fellow doctors, and a detachment of regular soldiers who volunteered from the ranks, decided to put Finlay’s theories to the test. They would allow themselves to be bitten by mosquitoes that had previously fed on yellow fever victims.

Dr. James Carroll was first, letting an infected mosquito bite him on August 27, 1900. He fell ill with the disease but survived—barely. His colleague, Dr. Jesse William Lazear, died of the yellow jack on September 25—leaving behind a young wife and child. Reed himself, like Carroll, sustained lasting damage to his health from the tests.

The regular soldiers were just as valiant. To a man, they refused the $250 payments offered them, feeling that the money would cheapen their endeavor on behalf of all humanity. A deeply moved Reed saluted them: “Gentlemen, I salute you.”

The United States Congress was less moved. For many years it denied a pension to one of the soldiers, Pvt. John R. Kissinger, even though he was paralyzed in the experiments. Even by 1925, the combined monthly payments to Kissinger, and to the widows of Reed, Lazear, and Carroll, was only $475. Meanwhile, American newspapers generally mocked the volunteers’ efforts when they noticed them at all, insisting in their ignorance that there must be a vaccine for the fever, and demanding that one be developed immediately.

Yet the doctors and the soldiers succeeded. They established not only that the mosquitoes spread the yellow jack, but that they did it over a particular cycle: picking up the disease only in the first three days that an infected patient had it; taking another 12 days after that to incubate it in their tiny bodies, before it became infectious.

Discovering the source of the disease was one thing; eradicating it another. That task fell to sturdy Major William Crawford Gorgas, who took on the incredible task of eliminating mosquito breeding grounds by disposing of all standing freshwater in Havana. Somehow, he did it; by 1901, there was not one case of yellow fever in the entire city.

Taking note of his work, chief engineer John Stevens brought Major Gorgas over to the isthmus in 1905—though it took an appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt himself to get him. Once, in Panama, Gorgas not only eradicated the Stegomyia in the Canal Zone, but also another mosquito that spread malaria, and rats that carried bubonic plague. By 1914, Panama had a death rate from yellow jack that was only half that of the United States, the canal was built, and Dr. Reed and his volunteers had done an enormous service for the world.

American Greats Edited by Robert A. Wilson & Stanley Marcus
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