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September 17, 1982

The Death of Walter Reed

JAMA. 1982;248(11):1342-1345. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03330110038022

LAST year, in a military hospital in the Washington area, a house officer was rounding with four medical students. It was his daily custom to ask a cultural question. "Today," he said, "I'll give an A to the one who can tell me what Walter Reed died of." Brief silence. Then one of the students ventured, "Sir, I believe he died of peritonitis after an appendectomy." "Wrong," said the instructor, "He died of yellow fever." I told this story to a friend, senior in years and wise beyond those years. My story was interrupted at the house officer's question: "Yellow fever!"

Yellow fever is not the answer. The student was correct, precisely correct. Walter Reed did die of peritonitis following an appendectomy. But his death remains a mystery. What ailed him and his appendix is not known.

'I Am Dreadfully Melancholic'  Walter Reed, Major, Medical Corps, US Army, died in