A Look at Walter Reed's History This past week, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close down the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The hospital has treated countless soldiers returning home from war and many U.S. presidents. Jacki Lyden speaks with Dr. John Pierce, a historian for the Walter Reed Society, about the hospital and the physician whose name it bears.
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A Look at Walter Reed's History

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A Look at Walter Reed's History

A Look at Walter Reed's History

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For nearly a century, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been a Washington fixture, a stately campus dotted with crepe myrtles. Last week, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission announced that the hospital, which has treated tens of thousands of war wounded and military families, will be closed. Walter Reed will be transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

But Walter Reed is a special part of American history. The roster of American heroes who died there includes President Dwight Eisenhower, General John Pershing, General Douglas MacArthur, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Senator Everett Dirksen and General George Marshall. Joining us now to talk more about its history is Dr. John Pierce. He serves as historian for the Walter Reed Society, and for 16 years he was a physician there.


Dr. JOHN PIERCE (Historian, Walter Reed Society): Thank you. Glad to be here.

LYDEN: Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of the facility and how it came to be where it is today?

Dr. PIERCE: Well, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center is the successor to the first Army hospital in Washington, DC; that was at Ft. McNair. Dr. Walter Reed actually died in that hospital in 1902 following a bout of appendicitis and surgery. And the doctor that operated on him, William Borden, was also the commander of that hospital, and he wanted to build a new hospital. He felt he needed a new facility. So after the death of his friend and patient, Walter Reed, he spent the next several years haunting the halls of Congress trying to get money to build a new facility.

He had been unsuccessful for several years, and on one of his trips up there, the doorman for the Senate said, `Doctor, I've noticed you've been up here a lot and I'm having trouble with my arm.' He was a Civil War veteran who had had an amputation. Dr. Borden actually saw him, took him to the hospital, operated on his arm and relieved his pain. As he was ready to go home from the hospital, he went by to see Dr. Borden, said, `I've noticed you up on Capitol Hill. What are you after?' And he said, `Well, I'm after money to build a new hospital. I want to name it after my good friend, Walter Reed.' Well, the doorman told him, `I've noticed if you go to a certain congressman--people that go to him generally get what they want.' And so he went to this congressman, talked to the person and after a couple of years, he got funded for what came to be Walter Reed General Hospital. The farm was bought that the property was on, and the hospital was built and opened in 1909.

LYDEN: Still, tell us a little bit more about Walter Reed. Who was Walter Reed?

Dr. PIERCE: Walter Reed was an Army doctor. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Medicine at age 17, the youngest person ever to graduate from there. He went to New York City and actually got another medical degree from Bellevue Hospital and joined the Army. He spent about 15 years out on the American frontier and then about 1893, was brought back to Washington to be a professor in what was called the Army Medical School. He was a professor at that school for several years. And in 1900, the surgeon general sent him to Cuba to study yellow fever. And in the course of just six or seven months in an incredible set of experiments, he proved that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitos.

LYDEN: I would think that as a hospital, as an Army hospital, it was always interested in what would afflict troops most, and those, of course, would be communicable diseases and wounds from the wars, as we see today with the amputees.

Dr. PIERCE: Sure.

LYDEN: What medical advances do you associate with the hospital?

Dr. PIERCE: Well, I'm a pediatrician, and the number-one answer to that, as far as I'm concerned, is Dr. Ogden Bruton, who was chief of pediatrics at Walter Reed in the early 1950s, had a young patient who had recurrent pneumonias and meningitis. And he performed a new blood test at that time on this young child's blood and determined that this child had no immunoglobulins in his bloodstream. And Dr. Bruton diagnosed the first ever immune-deficiency disease in an adult or child and reported that in 1951. And the disease is called Bruton's disease; it's named after him. And so that, you know, was a very landmark discovery, and it really opened the door to the field of immunology.

LYDEN: And, of course, in recent times, I would think, sadly, with the Iraq War, Walter Reed must becoming--absolutely specializing in the rehabilitation...

Dr. PIERCE: They have had, obviously, a lot of experience with amputations. There was a congressionally funded amputation center that they had started to build, but the BRAC process put that on hold.

LYDEN: The Base Closure and Realignment Commission?

Dr. PIERCE: Right. And actually since the committee has now voted to close Walter Reed, that will not go forward at all.

LYDEN: Dr. Pierce, I know that you're speaking--I'm asking you to speak about your former colleagues, but what are you hearing from doctors and nurses about the closure of Walter Reed? I mean, this must be pretty emotional. This has been the Army's hospital.

Dr. PIERCE: Well, certainly, it's emotional to me. I was assigned there for 16 years and spent a lot of my professional career there. And I think the history of the institution is a remarkable story in American history. There's probably no other hospital that's had such connection with the presidents of the United States over the years. Calvin Coolidge, who was president in the 1920s--his son died at Walter Reed. Young Calvin Coolidge Jr. was playing tennis on the White House lawn and didn't wear socks that day, got a blister on his foot, the blister got infected with staph aureus, a common skin germ, and it got into his bloodstream. And in the pre-antibiotic days, there was nothing to really treat him with, and he died at Walter Reed in July of 1924.

And, of course, over the years presidents came as patients, and they also came to see the troops. President Bush has been there many times to see the troops from this particular war.

LYDEN: Am I asking you, as a historian, to betray your confidence or judgment by asking if you think that this will, this closure, save money over the long run?

Dr. PIERCE: It's interesting. I've read a good bit about the BRAC process over the years, and apparently, the government is clever at hiding money here, there and everywhere, making it difficult to really determine. I don't think they can say for sure that money has been saved with the previous BRAC processes and that this process is going to take five or six years, and it's going to be really difficult over time to tell if money's actually going to be saved.

LYDEN: But one thing that you seem to be saying for sure is that an awful lot of history...

Dr. PIERCE: An awful lot of history...

LYDEN: ...will be--the doors will be closed.

Dr. PIERCE: ...is going to go away. And, for instance, the chapel there, the Memorial Chapel, was built after World War I. President Truman, after he became president of the United States with the death of President Roosevelt, attended his first church service as president in the Memorial Chapel at Walter Reed. He had come to Walter Reed to visit General Pershing, who had been his commander during World War I, when he actually lived at Walter Reed. And after visiting the general, he attended church at the Memorial Chapel, and that's probably going to go away.

LYDEN: Well, Dr. Pierce, thank you. Dr. John Pierce serves as historian for the Walter Reed Society, and was at the hospital for 16 years.

Thank you very much for talking to us.

Dr. PIERCE: You're welcome.

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