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Saying Goodbye To Walter Reed

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Saying Goodbye To Walter Reed

The Impact of War

Saying Goodbye To Walter Reed

Saying Goodbye To Walter Reed

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Guest

Jessica Adler, doctoral candidate, Columbia University

Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army's flagship hospital, is set to close after more than a century. Its legacy was scarred by a scandal in 2007 that uncovered terrible living conditions for many wounded troops. The hospital has treated hundreds of thousands of wounded Americans since 1909.

NEAL CONAN, host: The famous Walter Reed Army Medical Center closes later this summer after more than a century. A ceremony was held there earlier today. Patients included President Dwight David Eisenhower, Generals John Pershing and Douglas MacArthur and hundreds of thousands of wounded Americans since its doors opened in 1909. If you worked there, got treatment or visited there, we want to hear your Walter Reed story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

JESSICA ADLER: Jessica Adler wrote a paper called "A Very Necessary Institution: The Founding of Walter Reed Army General Hospital." She's a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and joins us from her home in California. Nice to have you with us today.

Hi, Neal. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And 1909, well after the Spanish-American War, eight years before the U.S. entry into World War I, why establish an Army hospital in peacetime?

ADLER: Yeah. That's really the question that drew me to this hospital in the first place in terms of historical research because it is interesting. I mean, 1909, what's going on? Not only is it long after the Spanish-American War, it's also well before World War I.

And also if you look at the Army records, you see that the number of soldiers actually being admitted to military hospitals is steadily declining in the first decade of the 20th century. So why and how was this hospital seen as necessary and justified at the moment that it was? So in order to answer that question, I think you have to look at some larger contexts.

So, in other words, what else was going on in American society that might help explain how the hospital came to be? So I think the first thing to really consider is this idea of American internationalism, so during, as you mentioned, the Spanish-American War, there's this moment when the U.S. was really for the first time beginning to proclaim its power as an international force. And during that very short conflict, what you have is deaths due to disease far outnumbering deaths due to battle.

So in the aftermath of the war, you have Congress asking how could this happen? How could we have lost more than 2,000 troops due to things like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, yellow fever as opposed to what we're seeing as more worthy injuries and fatalities due to things like gunshots? Only about 360 troops died in battle during the Spanish-American War. So what these congressional committees conclude is that an Army has to prepare for the medical consequences of war even during times of peace.

So American troops at this point continued to occupy so-called tropical areas, in the Philippines and in Cuba. And preventive medicine, the study of what causes diseases, how to formulate vaccines to prevent them becomes seen as a very worthy area of study.

CONAN: And that takes us back to the namesake of the hospital. Of course, there were American troops in the Canal Zone in Panama, and that's where Walter Reed did his work.

ADLER: Right. That's true. And actually, the primary advocate for the hospital who was a fellow named William Borden was a very good friend of Walter Reed's. Walter Reed, of course, did his major scientific research in 1901 and 1902 when he discovered that the mosquito was the vector for transmitting yellow fever. This is what he's widely celebrated for now. William Borden was the unfortunate doctor to have operated on Walter Reed in 1902 for what was thought to be a sort of routine appendicitis surgery.

But very soon after the surgery, Walter Reed died, and people who recount the founding of Walter Reed often say that perhaps Borden was very remorseful about the fact that Reed had died almost at his hands and was very eager to make sure that there was an adequate tribute to this man.

CONAN: We've asked our listeners for their Walter Reed stories. This one we have is from Frank Cronin(ph), and he wrote I must admit this would be one of the saddest days of my life, seeing this military institution close. I was a soldier stationed at this great facility from May 1970 to April 1972. I have many great memories, one of which was an "Ed Sullivan Show" taped there in early

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