Walter Reed had earned a medical degree by age 17 and joined the army as a surgeon at age 23. Reed had spent nearly 18 years at various western forts by the time he arrived at his post as curator of the Army Medical Museum in 1893, also working as a professor at the Army Medical School and at what is now George Washington University. As the 1890s started seeing important advances in medicine, Reed quickly moved to lead the charge against infectious disease, most notably yellow fever.

Yellow fever had been a horrible scourge in the United States for generations. The virus initially causes headaches, nausea, fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. Over the next two days, the fever spikes, causing delirium and seizures. It can also cause liver and kidney failure, leading to death within a couple of days. The yellowing of the skin and the eyes in this final stage is caused by the severe damage to the liver and is where the disease gets its name.

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