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Walter Reed Army Institute of Research: A Brief History

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) is today the cornerstone of a research apparatus that, since World War II, has been organized – and reorganized – into a network of distinct installations, each reporting to the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s (USAMRMC’s) commanding general at Fort Detrick, Md. But these lines of command haven’t always been so clearly drawn.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Army’s medical research was conducted by scientists who reported directly to the Army surgeon general, and who moved fluidly from one assignment to another among units under his command. In January 1893, Brig. Gen. George M. Sternberg, the Army surgeon general – a physician remembered today as the nation’s first bacteriologist – established a new duty station: the Army Medical School. At the first school of public health and preventive medicine in the United States, Army medical officers were trained in the art and science of military medicine, focusing primarily on the prevention of infectious disease – which was, at the time, the most significant threat to soldiers’ health.

In January 1893, Brig. Gen. George M. Sternberg, the Army surgeon general – a physician remembered today as the nation’s first bacteriologist – established a new duty station: the Army Medical School. At the first school of public health and preventive medicine in the United States, Army medical officers were trained in the art and science of military medicine, focusing primarily on the prevention of infectious disease – which was, at the time, the most significant threat to soldiers’ health.

As its name implies, the Army Medical School was primarily an educational institution, with a research function far subordinate to its teaching mission – though its students learned from the service’s most talented and accomplished medical researchers, many of whom are celebrated today for their work in the laboratory and the field.

When soldiers were dispatched to the Caribbean and Pacific tropics during the Spanish-American War, for example, Sternberg assigned his Army researchers to investigate the tropical diseases that confronted them. In 1898, the Typhoid Board, led by the Army Medical School’s first dean, Maj. Walter Reed, established the mechanism of this disease’s transmission and established sanitary protocols that helped prevent outbreaks in Army camps. In 1909, Maj. Frederick F. Russell, an Army Medical School professor of bacteriology, developed America’s first typhoid vaccine. A year later, Army Medical School professor of chemistry Maj. Carl Rogers Darnall invented the liquid chlorine method of water purification now applied to municipal water supplies around the world.

Walter Reed

Walter Reed at 26. Reed completed his first M.D. degree at age 18. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research photo

Two years after the Typhoid Board’s discovery, Reed and other members of the Yellow Fever Commission, along with Cuban researcher Carlos J. Finlay, established that this deadly hemorrhagic disease was caused by the first known human virus, and confirmed the mosquito as the infecting agent – a discovery later used by Col. (later Maj. Gen.) William C. Gorgas to control yellow fever and malaria among workers building the Panama Canal.

The Philippine Tropical Disease Boards that began work in 1899, investigated a range of diseases and health problems, many of them in the urban environment of Manila; in 1907, Capt. Percy M. Ashburn and Lt. Charles F. Craig announced one of the most noteworthy discoveries to come from this work: Dengue fever was also caused by a virus. Nearly two decades later, Lt. Col. Joseph F. Siler confirmed the female mosquito as the vector for the dengue virus.

The Philippine Tropical Disease Boards that began work in 1899, investigated a range of diseases and health problems, many of them in the urban environment of Manila; in 1907, Capt. Percy M. Ashburn and Lt. Charles F. Craig announced one of the most noteworthy discoveries to come from this work: Dengue fever was also caused by a virus.

Lt. Col. Edward L. Munson, whose assignments included a stint as a professor of hygiene at the Army Medical School, led the Army Shoe Board, convened at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1908 to design a better military shoe, using an X-ray machine and the feet of the fort’s 4,000 infantrymen. The new design, the “Munson last,” protected and supported the entire foot, and was used exclusively on all military shoes until the late 1960s.

Until 1910, the Army Medical School was housed in the Army Medical Museum and Library building – the “Old Red Brick” – on the National Mall, where the Smithsonian Institute’s Hirshhorn Museum now stands. It moved locations twice more before 1923, when it was renamed the Army Medical Department Professional Service School (MDPSS) and moved into Building 40, on the campus of the new Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where it would remain for another seven decades.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...