The Ultimate Sacrifice
Within the realm of public health, it is not uncommon for researchers to take risks. In fact, those who have committed themselves to the field of publichealth are primarily focused on the greater good, and often that means placing the needs of the masses above themselves. This notion of self sacrifice is epitomized in the case of Jesse Lazear who gave his life in pursuit of answers that would help protect the world from mosquito-borne illness.
Lazear enlisted in the fight against Yellow Fever, winning a key battle but losing his life to the cause. It is because of Lazear that we have a vaccine to treat this deadly illness today. His work and his sacrifice places him among the most well-known figures in the history of public health.
Like many research professionals, Lazear did not act alone when proving the Yellow Fever gestation period within mosquitoes. In 1900, Dr. Walter Reed of the U.S. Army began researching the Yellow Fever virus after seeing a number of its victims perish during the Spanish-American war.
With his interest in Yellow Fever piqued after years studying at John’s Hopkins University, Lazear joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps as an assistant surgeon and microbiologist. He worked under Reed on the Yellow Fever Commission out of Camp Columbia (Havana, Cuba), striving to learn more and studying the theories of Henry Rose Carter and Carlos Finlay. Carter had postulated that the gestation time for Yellow Fever was somewhere between 10-17 days, while Finlay theorized that a connection existed between Yellow Fever and mosquitoes.
Based on these theories, Lazear conducted experiments by letting mosquitos infected with Yellow Fever feast on volunteers for 10 days. When the volunteers did not become infected, he repeated the experiment two days later only to find the disease had been transmitted to two of the volunteer patients.
By showing that mosquito transmission from one human to another required a certain gestation period, Lazear’s experiments proved both Finlay’s and Carter’s theories. After seeing the results, Lazear wrote in his journal, “I rather think I am on the track of the real germ.”