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Omaha Magazine

Walter Reed’s Fateful Years in Nebraska

Feb 22, 2024 10:55AM ● By Claudia Moomey
dr. walter reed history omaha magazine march april 2024

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“We doubt if Fort Robinson will ever contain a physician as affable and accommodating as the outgoing doctor has been, not only to the soldiers but settlers as well.”

Inscribed on his burial marker at Arlington National Cemetery, this statement summarizes the great medical influence of Dr. Walter Reed.

Typhoid fever, erysipelas, cholera–these were all challenges that Reed encountered during his time as post surgeon at Fort Sidney, Fort Robinson, and Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Reed, ranked Captain at the time, treated many cases of infectious diseases and presided over several births. Tending mainly to other soldiers stationed at the forts and their families, Reed was able to save and improve the lives of countless people while using his influence to create more sanitary conditions for ailing soldiers.

Reed, who had graduated with an M.D. from the University of Virginia at the age of 17, was soon enlisted in the military; stationed at Fort Omaha, his wife Emily gave birth to a daughter, who shared her mother’s name.

From Fort Omaha, Reed was ordered in October of 1883 to Fort Sidney, Nebraska, where his temporary responsibility was to reside over the military hospital. “Upon taking charge of medical affairs at Fort Sidney,” Reed wrote, “I find the ward rather full of ‘ugly’ cases.” These cases fostered the spread of diseases among soldiers in the barracks. The living and treatment spaces were so unclean and dangerous that Reed suggested to his superiors that the military post be shut down. While not on duty as a surgeon, he wrote by candlelight his medical reports, which included his suggestions for better conditions and improved equipment to make for safer medical practices.

His treatment of several infections and illnesses at this fort, primarily erysipelas, a skin infection that can spread to the lymphatic system, inspired his first medical article, “The Contagiousness of Erysipelas,” published in 1892.

Having spent only about nine months at Fort Sidney, Reed was then transferred to Fort Robinson in July 1884. Among the patients at this third Nebraska location was Swiss immigrant Jules Sandoz, who had broken his ankle while digging a well. Reed was prepared to amputate Sandoz’s foot, because he believed that removing the limb was the only solution. The patient, however, refused to consent. Sandoz reportedly threatened to kill Reed if the doctor amputated. Reed, an honorable physician who respected his patients’ wishes, proceeded with an alternate, albeit extensive course of treatment, and ultimately saved the man’s foot.

A local newspaper in the area praised Dr. Reed’s achievements as he left the fort: “We doubt if Fort Robinson will ever contain a physician as affable and accommodating as the outgoing doctor has been, not only to the soldiers but settlers as well.”

The myriad cases Reed treated during his years in Nebraska sparked his interest in the relatively new field of bacteriology, which he continued to study. In 1890, Reed requested a leave of absence, which was granted, along with special permission to study at Johns Hopkins University.

After his time in the Midwest, Reed went on to do prominent research in Havana, Cuba, particularly dealing with the epidemic of yellow fever. At the time, medical professionals widely believed that the disease was spread by fomites, or infected materials such as bedding or cutlery. Reed, however, saw that each of his patients had a common hobby: walking through the forest during their down time. Using this observation as a starting point to trace other possibilities, he and his colleagues created the new theory that instead of dirty bedding and clothing, yellow fever was transmitted by an outside agent–the mosquito.

Through a series of experiments, Reed and his colleagues proved that mosquito bites were to blame for spreading yellow fever. This became Reed’s crowning scientific achievement, earning him various awards and leading to one of the most prominent hospitals in the country taking his name: the Walter Reed General Hospital, later renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Reed’s influence on the medical world is still celebrated today. In March 2020, the Marie Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center in Chadron, Nebraska, presented an exhibition entitled “Hindsight 20/20,” which documented Reed’s time at Fort Robinson. This exhibition told his story alongside a display of a collection of pharmaceutical items from the time period.

Although a disease like yellow fever may be thought of as ancient in comparison to current medical knowledge, it presented a serious risk to those infected before Walter Reed was able to pinpoint its cause. For this unprecedented discovery, he is one of the most prolific medical professionals in American history, inspiring doctors and scientists everywhere to think outside the box. 

For Reed, however, fame was not important. As he wrote to his wife, “The prayer that has been mine for 20 or more years, that I might be permitted in some way or sometime to do something to alleviate human suffering, has been answered!”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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