Cuban physician Carlos J. Finlay was convinced he had the right idea. In 1881, he hypothesized that the rampant yellow fever epidemics of the 19th century were being transmitted by mosquitoes through their bites.
However, it wasn’t until U.S. Army physician Walter Reed and his Yellow Fever Commission validated Finlay’s theory in 1900 that progress was made in combating this deadly disease.
LSUS faculty member Dr. Robert Miciotto, a medical historian in residence, delved into this pivotal discovery in his lecture titled “In the Footsteps of a Pioneer: Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever Quest” at Noel Memorial Library last Friday.
Almost a decade before Finlay’s hypothesis, Shreveport faced the third-worst yellow fever epidemic on record in 1873, claiming a quarter of the town’s population (around 1,200 people). Scientific analysis of the outbreak revealed higher infection rates near bodies of water, foreshadowing the revelation that mosquitoes were the culprits.
When Finlay presented his theory in 1881, it was met with skepticism. Miciotto noted that prevailing wisdom suggested bacteria spread via fomites (objects like bedsheets or clothing). With Cuba grappling with yellow fever for centuries, many assumed it was an inevitable part of tropical life.
The U.S. military’s presence in post-revolution Cuba led Reed to the Caribbean island to study yellow fever. Despite an initial setback due to a break in quarantine protocol, Reed’s subsequent experiments, including one at Camp Lazear, conclusively pointed to mosquitoes as the carriers.
In a groundbreaking moment for medical history, Reed’s experiments demonstrated that only those in the mosquito-quarantined area were infected. This led to cities improving drainage systems and implementing mosquito deterrents, resulting in a decline in yellow fever epidemics.
In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Board contributed substantial resources to eradicate yellow fever, culminating in the development of a vaccine in 1937.
While yellow fever persists in certain tropical parts of Africa and slivers of South America today, significant strides have been made in containment.