Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Wilson Engel
Arizona, United States

The Walter Reed General Hospital (main building with cupola in distance at far left) in September, 1919.
The Hospital was precursor to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center was—along with its precursor, the Walter Reed General Hospital—the U.S. Army’s flagship medical center for over 100 years, from 1909 to 2011.1 Located on 113 acres at 6900 Georgia Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., the Center served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the military. The Center was named after Major Walter Reed (1851–1902),2 the Army physician who led the team that confirmed that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes as vectors rather than by direct physical contact. The Center was always associated with research on vector-borne diseases.3 After long and distinguished service as a Center with many affiliated institutions in the Greater D.C. area, during which Presidents and Generals were treated by its staff, the Center was ignominiously disgraced early in the 21st Century in what was called the “neglect scandal,”4 disestablished in 2011 and merged with the National Navy Medical Center to become the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center facility grew from an original bed capacity of 80 patients to approximately 5,500 rooms covering more than 28 acres of floor space. The Center combined with the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, in 2011 to form the tri-service Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.5

The original location of the Center’s precursor clinic was Fort Lesley J. McNair in southwest Washington, D.C., on land set aside by George Washington as a military reservation. Fort McNair is the third oldest U.S. Army installation in continuous use in the United States. Its position at the confluence of the Anacostia and the Potomac Rivers made it an excellent site for defense of the nation’s capital. From 1791 the post served as an arsenal, played an important role in the nation’s defense, and housed the first U.S. Federal Penitentiary from 1839 to 1862. Fort McNair enjoys a strong tradition as the intellectual headquarters for defense and site of the National Defense University. Furthermore, with unparalleled vistas of the picturesque waterfront and the opposing Virginia shoreline, the historic health clinic at Fort McNair—the precursor of today’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center—overlooks the residences of top officials who chose the facility for the delivery of their health care needs.

Walter Reed’s Clinic, the location of the present day health clinic at Washington D.C., occupies what was from 1898 until 1909 the General Hospital at what was then Washington Barracks, long before the post was renamed in honor of Lt. Gen. McNair, who was killed in Normandy in 1944 by friendly fire.6 The hospital served as the forerunner of Walter Reed General Hospital; however, the Victorian-era waterfront dispensary remains and is one of America’s most historically significant military medical treatment facilities. Walter Reed lived and worked in the facility when he was assigned as Camp Surgeon from 1881 to 1882. After having served on other assignments, he returned as Professor of Medicine and Curator of the Army Medical Museum. Some of Major Reed’s epidemiological work included studies at Washington Barracks, and he is best known for discovering the transmission of yellow fever. In 1902, Major Reed underwent emergency surgery there for appendicitis. He died of complications in this U.S. Army Medical Treatment Facility within the walls of what became his final military duty assignment.

Since the 1890s the health clinic was used as an Army General Hospital where physicians, corpsmen, and nurses were trained in military health care. In 1899, the morgue was constructed which later housed the Dental Clinic.  In 1901 the Hospital became an entirely separate command. This new organizational command relocated eight years later with the aide of horse-drawn wagons and an experimental steam-driven ambulance in 1909. Departing from the 50-bed hospital, the medical staff set out due north transporting with them 11 patients initially to the new 65-bed facility in the northern aspect of the capital.7 Having departed Ft. McNair, the organization afterward developed into the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The facility left behind at Fort McNair functioned in a smaller role as a post hospital until 1911 when the west wing was converted into a clinic. This renovated medical treatment facility at Fort McNair continued its rich, uninterrupted heritage in providing a wide variety of state-of-the-art health care to the capital region military community as an extension of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Congressional legislation appropriated $192,000 for the construction of Walter Reed General Hospital, known as “Building 1.” The Hospital’s first ten patients were admitted on May 1, 1909. Lieutenant Colonel William Cline Borden was the initiator, planner, and effective mover for the creation, location, and first Congressional support of the Medical Center. Because of his efforts, the facility was nicknamed “Borden’s Dream.” The Borden Institute is named for this former physician to Major Walter Reed.8

In 1923 General John J. Pershing signed the War Department order creating the “Army Medical Center” within the same campus as the Hospital. At this time, the Army Medical School was relocated from 604 Louisiana Avenue and became the Medical Department Professional Service School in the new Building 40. General Pershing lived at Walter Reed from 1944 until his death there July 15, 1948.

In September 1951 General Order Number 8 combined the Hospital with the Army Medical Center; the entire complex of 100 red-brick Georgian buildings was at that time renamed the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In June 1955 the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology occupied the new Building 54, and in November what had been Medical Department Professional Service School was renamed the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. This Institute, since 1999 located at the Forest Glen Annex in Silver Spring, Maryland,9 produced non-military medical breakthroughs.10 In 1957 mathematician John von Neumann died at the Center, and in 1959 legendary spy chief William J. Donovan died there. 1964 saw the birth of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on March 28, 1969.

Starting in 1972, a huge new Walter Reed Army Medical Center building, known as “Building 2,” was constructed and made ready for occupation by 1977. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research moved from Building 40 to a large new facility on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center Forest Glen Annex in Maryland in 1999. Subsequently, Building 40 was slated for renovation under an enhanced-use lease by a private developer.

As part of a Base Realignment and Closure announcement on May 13, 2005, the Department of Defense proposed replacing Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; the new center would be on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, seven miles from the Center’s then-current location in Washington, D.C. The proposal was part of a program to transform medical facilities into joint facilities, with staff including Army, Navy, and Air Force medical personnel. On August 25, 2005, the BRAC Committee recommended passage of plans for the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center established a partnership whereby proton therapy technology would be made available to treat United States military personnel and veterans in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine’s new Roberts Proton Therapy Center.11

In February 2007, The Washington Post published a series of investigative articles outlining cases of alleged neglect, including physical deterioration of housing quarters outside hospital grounds, bureaucratic nightmares, and many medical improprieties, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as reported by outpatient soldiers and their families.12 A scandal and media furor quickly developed resulting in the firing of the Center’s commanding general Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, the resignation of Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey, and the forced resignation of Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, hospital commander from 2002 to 2004. Congressional committee hearings were called, and numerous politicians weighed in on the matter including President George W. Bush, who had appointed Harvey, and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Several independent governmental investigations were conducted, and the controversy spread to engulf other military health facilities and the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

Transfer of services from the existing Center facilities to the new facilities at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, was gradual to allow for continuity of care for the thousands of service members, retirees, and family members who depended upon Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Operations at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center facility ended on August 27, 2011.


  1. The structure, substance, and Figure 1 of this article, with textual editing and additional notes, are taken from the following: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Reed_Army_Medical_Center
  2. http://www.medicalmuseum.mil/index.cfm?p=about.directors.reed
  3. http://www.npr.org/2011/09/01/139641878/at-walter-reed-military-medicine-fights-malaria
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Reed_Army_Medical_Center_neglect_scandal
  5. http://www.npr.org/2011/09/02/139641918/change-is-hard-army-navy-hospitals-merge
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesley_J._McNair
  7. The Army Nursing Newsletter, Volume 99, Issue 2, February 2000.
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borden_Institute
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Glen_Annex
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Reed_Army_Institute_of_Research
  11. http://www.pennmedicine.org/radiation-oncology/patient-care/treatments/proton-therapy/roberts-proton-therapy-center.html
  12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/17/AR2007021701172.html

WILSON F. ENGEL, III, PhD has published widely in the arts and humanities as well as medicine and the sciences. He was founder and editor in chief of Microbe Virus Vector Monitor, an international disease control newsletter that became a special classified disease control project of the US Navy. Inspired by the work of Major Walter Reed, Dr. Engel tracked the Peruvian cholera epidemic for the US Navy. Dr. Engel is represented in The Directory of American Scholars and numerous Who’s Who publications.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2016 – Volume 8, Issue 3

Summer 2016



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