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  • Carlos Juan Finlay, William Gorgas, and Walter Reed and the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Controversy:Competing Historical Memories
  • Ellen Griffith Spears (bio) and Rosa López-Oceguera (bio)

several years ago, when we, as two historians, one american and one Cuban, began this inquiry into Cuban doctor Carlos Juan Finlay's collaboration with the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission during the first U.S. military occupation of Cuba from 1898 to 1902, we assumed we had chosen a non-controversial topic centered on the friendship between Finlay and American doctor William Gorgas. Correspondence between Finlay and Gorgas, sanitation director for the U.S. Army in Havana during the yellow fever campaign, had surfaced in the W. S. Hoole Collection at the University of Alabama archives and suggested a collaboration worth highlighting as relations between the two countries appeared to be warming during the administration of President Barack Obama. However, more than [End Page 62] a century after the events in question, we found we had inadvertently wandered into one of the longer running and, at times, rancorous debates in the history of medicine. Revisiting the twists and turns in the ways in which the story of yellow fever has been told illuminates important questions in the history of medicine and environmental health, including the nineteenth-century revolution in the emerging fields of bacteriology and epidemiology. This story also sheds light on the politics of disease and colonization, the racialization of science, and the role of scientific collaboration under conditions of war. As conversations deepen between contemporary U.S. and Cuban scholars, revisiting the historiography of the yellow fever campaign explores how divergent historical memories of these events collide.

The discovery of the etiology and treatment of yellow fever is memorialized very differently in Cuba than in the United States. While numerous accounts today credit Finlay as identifying the mosquito vector, medical authorities at the time rejected his findings and the historical record long downplayed Finlay's pathbreaking contributions to yellow fever etiology.1 According to historian John Lawrence Tone, Walter Reed's reports in the United States on yellow fever research failed to acknowledge fully Finlay's role. In Cuba, by contrast, Finlay is a national hero, with streets, monuments, and a prize in medicine named after him. Finlay's statue stands prominently in downtown Havana, directly across from the old Academy of Sciences building, now the Carlos Finlay Historical Museum of Science. Cuba celebrates a "Día de la Medicina Latinoamericana, en Honor al Sabio Carlos J. Finlay" and designates a major medical prize annually in his honor.2


carlos j. finlay, or carlos "jota" finlay, as he is known in Cuba, (December 3, 1833–August 20, 1915) was of Scottish and French descent, a first-generation Cuban, educated in France and Philadelphia. In 1857, as a twenty-five-year-old recent medical school [End Page 63]

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Figure 1.

A statue of Carlos Juan Finlay graces a park in downtown Havana, just across the street from the former Cuban Academy of Sciences building, now the Carlos Finlay Historical Museum of Science. All photographs taken by Ellen Griffith Spears.

[End Page 64] graduate, he began researching yellow fever. In February 1881, at the International Sanitary Conference in Washington, D.C., when Finlay described his tentative hypothesis implicating the mosquito in the spread of yellow fever, his work was met with skepticism, even ridicule. However, twenty years later, Finlay's revolutionary theory and his experimental work pinpointing the insect vector provided the basis for his collaboration with U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission doctor Walter Reed and sanitation director William Gorgas in a public health campaign that effectively eradicated the disease in Havana.

Dr. Finlay's correspondence with Dr. Gorgas resides in the Hoole Collection because the Gorgas family history is entwined with the history of the University of Alabama. Confederate chief of ordnance General Josiah Gorgas became president of the university for a brief period beginning in 1878. Amelia Gayle Gorgas, who was married to Josiah, directed the University of Alabama library for nearly twenty-five years and the university's main library bears her name. William Crawford Gorgas, their...


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