Never Do Unto Others What You Wouldn't Do to Yourself

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


June 23, 2015

A Fatal Misjudgment

Figure 6. Jesse Lazear. Image from Wikipedia

Jesse W. Lazear (1866-1900) obtained his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and in 1900 joined a special group assembled to study the cause and prevention of yellow fever. Yellow fever was prevalent in tropical regions and was a major reason that France, which had successfully completed the Suez Canal, failed to build a similar canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

Members of the US Army Yellow Fever Commission believed that mosquitoes might transmit the disease in a manner similar to malaria. The commission supervised the inoculation of soldiers with material from infected mosquitoes, hoping to obtain confirmation of the mosquito transmission hypothesis. To blunt ethical considerations, members of the Yellow Fever Commission also participated in these experiments, allowing themselves to be bitten by infected mosquitoes.

This episode of self-experimentation ended tragically when Lazear died of yellow fever about 1 week after his exposure. However, his death strongly supported the mosquito-borne nature of transmission, and it eventually led US Army physician Walter Reed to wage an extensive and effective campaign to control the mosquito population surrounding the American Panama Canal Zone construction area.[8,9]


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