Dr Jesse William Lazear (1866 – 1900)
In 1900 Dr Jesse William Lazear joined the Yellow Fever Commission team in Cuba under Walter Reed. He was employed to conduct studies into the bacteriology of tropical diseases. Following up on Ronald Ross’s recent discovery of the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of malaria, and the theory advanced by Carlos Finlay that mosquitoes also transmitted Yellow Fever, he conducted a series of inoculation studies on human subjects. He recognised that infected mosquitoes had to ‘ripen’ for up to 12 days before they were fully infective.
From a field notebook recovered after his death it became clear that he included himself in his inoculation studies and may have been the victim of his own experiment. It has also been claimed that the inoculum that caused Lazear’s Yellow Fever came from the incidental bite of a wild mosquito that had not been cultivated for the sake of his experiments.
Accidental or deliberate? His death from fulminant Yellow Fever robbed us of the answer to that question. Unfortunately, the notebook containing his results disappeared from Walter Reed’s collection after Reed’s death in 1902.
Jesse Lazear contributed to the work that established Yellow Fever as a mosquito-borne infection and ultimately led to the development of an effective vaccine. But he paid a high price for the discovery.
Letter fragment from Jesse W. Lazear to Mabel H. Lazear – September 8, 1900
I rather think I am on the track of the real germ, but nothing must be said as yet, not same a hint I have not mentioned it to a soul.
Letter from Walter Reed to Emilie Lawrence Reed – October 6, 1900
Dr Lazear contracted the disease at the yellow fever [Hospital in Havana] by letting an infected mosquito bite him. He saw the insect on his hand & deliberately let it get its fill of blood in order to test our theory- Five days later he had his chill, followed by high fever- His case was a very severe one from the beginning, his death occurring on the 6th day there after- He was a splendid, brave fellow & I lament his loss more than words can tell; but his death was not in vain. His name will live in the history of those who have benefited humanity. The dangerous part of the work is now over & there is no need for you, my sweetheart, to continue to worry about me.
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