SHREVEPORT – Cuban physician Carlos J. Finlay just knew he was right.
Finlay hypothesized in 1881 that yellow fever, which was causing epidemics throughout the 19th century, was being transmitted by mosquitoes through their bite.
But it took U.S. Army physician Walter Reed and his Yellow Fever Commission to prove Finlay’s theory in 1900, laying the groundwork to stem the tide of this deadly disease.
LSUS faculty member Dr. Robert Miciotto, a medical historian in residence, discussed the journey toward this discovery in his lecture “In the Footsteps of a Pioneer: Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever Quest” on Friday at Noel Memorial Library.
Less than a decade before Finlay’s hypothesis, Shreveport suffered the third-worst yellow fever epidemic on record when one-quarter of the town’s population (about 1,200 people) died in an 1873 outbreak. Outbreaks were common in coastal areas of the southern U.S. and throughout the Mississippi River Valley during this time.
But there was scientific analysis of Shreveport’s outbreak that noted much higher rates of infection near bodies of water, a precursor to the discovery that mosquitoes were the culprit.
When Finlay presented his theory to the medical community in 1881, his view wasn’t well received.
“He was ridiculed,” Miciotto said, adding that the prevailing theory was that bacteria latched onto fomites, objects like bedsheets or clothing, to spread infection to a new human host. “Cuba had been dealing with yellow fever outbreaks for 300 years, and people probably assumed it would always be a part of life in a tropical location.”
The U.S. military had a presence in Cuba following Cuba’s revolution against Spain in the late 19th century, which is how Reed landed on the Caribbean island to study yellow fever.
Reed, who led the U.S. Army’s Yellow Fever Commission, designed one experiment which began to point to mosquitoes, but a break in quarantine protocol before human subjects were voluntarily infected with yellow fever damaged the scientific efficacy of the first study.
One the commission’s members Dr. Jesse W. Lazear was among of handful of participants who died after voluntarily being infected with yellow fever.
Reed designed another experience at what was named Camp Lazear, setting up two buildings to test whether or not yellow fever was transmitted through mosquitoes or fomites.
In one building, Reed outfitted the room with bedding and clothing taken from people infected with yellow fever, going so far as to douse the room in bodily fluid and excrement from those patients.
In another building, mosquitoes were placed on one side of the room with a mesh divider that prevented mosquitoes from crossing. Participants lived in both sections, one with mosquitoes and one without.
People lived in both buildings for a prescribed amount of time, and only people within the mosquito-quarantined area were infected.
“It was one of the great defining moments in the history of medicine,” Miciotto said. “While most people caught relatively mild cases, the disease did kill about 15 percent of people it infected.”
Cities began to improve drainage systems and employ other mosquito deterrence. Yellow fever epidemics began to disappear.
In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Board contributed significant financial resources in an attempt to eradicate yellow fever entirely. A vaccine was developed in 1937.
Yellow fever isn’t gone entirely today, but it’s contained to certain tropical parts of Africa and slivers of South America.