An 1869 medical graduate of the University of Virginia, Walter Reed (1851-1902) was granted his commission in the United States Army Medical Corps in 1875. After serving as an army surgeon at remote sites in Arizona, Nebraska, and Alabama, Reed was assigned to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in October of 1890. The Fort McHenry assignment allowed Reed to participate in a seven-month pathology and bacteriology course at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There he worked with Dr. William Welch in the pathology of typhoid fever and on the identification of the hog cholera bacillus.
Army Surgeon-General George Miller Sternberg was impressed by Reed’s work at Johns Hopkins. In 1893 he appointed Reed Professor of Clinical and Sanitary Microscopy at the new Army Medical School in Washington, with a joint appointment as curator of the Army Medical Museum. One of Reed’s first projects in Washington was a collaboration with Sternberg on a smallpox vaccine study.
In 1895, Reed studied an outbreak of malaria near Washington. He observed that the marshlands played some role in the spread of malaria, yet he dismissed the suggestion that mosquitoes carried the disease.
In 1898, following the declaration of war on Spain, Sternberg selected Reed, Victor Vaughan, and E.O. Shakespeare to examine the American military camps in order to ascertain the cause of the typhoid epidemic. They concluded that typhoid was the result of filthy living conditions. Two years later, Sternberg made Reed officer-in-charge of the Yellow Fever Commission.
An English-born Canadian, James Carroll (1854-1907) emigrated to America in 1874 and enlisted in the United States Army. Sergeant Carroll decided to pursue a medical degree while serving as a hospital steward at forts in Dakota Territory and Minnesota. He attended medical lectures in St. Paul and, after being assigned to the east, at the University of the City of New York. In 1889 he enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned his M.D. in 1891.
Later that year, Carroll began post-graduate work in the new science of bacteriology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He studied under Dr. William Welch and assisted Major Walter Reed in the pathology laboratories.
In 1895, Army Surgeon-General Sternberg assigned Carroll to the medical faculty of the Army Medical Museum in Washington, where he renewed his relationship with Reed. Carroll and Reed worked together in bacteriology research at the museum and at the Columbian University Medical School.
In 1899, Sternberg appointed Carroll and Reed to investigate the bacillus icteroides, the microbe that Italian bacteriologist Giuseppe Sanarelli had identified as the cause of yellow fever. Their work helped disprove Sanarelli’s theory and catapulted Carroll and Reed into the yellow fever debate.
In 1900, Sternberg promoted Carroll to Acting Assistant Surgeon in the Army Medical Corps and placed him second-in-command on the Yellow Fever Commission.
Aristides Agramonte (1868-1931) was born in Puerto Principe, Cuba. After his father was killed by the Spaniards during the First Cuban War for Independence (1868-78), 3-year old Aristides and his family emigrated to the United States, where he was raised and educated.
Agramonte earned his medical degree in 1892 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and was subsequently appointed assistant bacteriologist with the New York Health Department. He continued in this office until May of 1898, when Surgeon-General Sternberg appointed him Acting Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army.
Sternberg knew that, since Agramonte had acquired immunity to yellow fever from a mild childhood case in Cuba, he was the perfect choice to send to Santiago in July to study the yellow fever outbreak in General Shafter’s army. There Agramonte performed autopsies in order to determine if Sanarelli’s bacillus icteroides was in fact the causative agent of the disease. He found Sanarelli’s agent in only three of ten victims. His work, in conjunction with Reed and Carroll’s similar research in Washington, discredited Sanarelli’s thesis.
In December of 1898, Sternberg sent Agramonte back to Cuba after two bacteriologists from the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (later the U.S. Public Health Service) confirmed Sanarelli’s discovery. The yellow fever outbreak in Santiago in the summer of 1899 provided Agramonte with an abundance of research material. Working side by side with the USMHS bacteriologists, Agramonte verified his previous findings: bacillus icteroides was not present in all yellow fever victims. In May of 1900, still in Havana as laboratory director of the military hospital, Agramonte received from Sternberg a letter of appointment to the Yellow Fever Commission.
After two years at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, Jesse W. Lazear (1866-1900) completed his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University in 1889. In 1892, after graduating with honors from two anatomy courses taught by Sir William Turner at the University of Edinburgh, Lazear received his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
Lazear returned to Europe to study microbiology following his post-graduate training at Bellevue Hospital. He worked at the Kaiserliches Institute in Berlin until March of 1895, then continued his studies in Paris at the Pasteur Institute.
In 1895, Lazear accepted the position as head of clinical laboratories at the newly formed Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. At Hopkins he worked with William Welch and William Osler. He also assisted William Thayer and Thomas Futcher with their research in gonorrhea endocarditis and septicemia.
In 1898, Lazear developed a method of using thyonin to stain malarial parasites. During the following year, after completing a paper on the pathology of malarial fever, Lazear and Thayer studied the relationship between the Anopheles mosquito and malaria that Sir Ronald Ross had recently established. In mid-January of 1900, with a strong recommendation letter from Dr. Welch, he applied to Army Surgeon-General Sternberg for a temporary assignment in the U.S. Army Medical Corps to study tropical diseases. Sternberg honored his request with an appointment to the Yellow Fever Commission.