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Liberty Mills

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Source: The News-Journal, Nov 26, 1936


The American Society of Tropical Medicine Thursday in Washington presented a memorial to the family of the late Walter Reed, whose efforts during the Spanish American war led to discovery of the yellow fever. Liberty Mills and North Manchester have a special interest in events that recall that heroic experiment, as John R. Kissinger, a Liberty Mills boy, had an active part in it. Kissinger was one of the brave men who volunteered to be human experiments and faced almost certain death. They were placed in a room to be bitten by mosquitoes known to have been in contact with yellow fever victims. Eight men died during or following the experiments. Noguchi, Adrian Stokes, William Alexander Young, Theodore Hayne, Paul Lewis, Maurice Wakeman, Nelson Davis and Wray Lloyd.

Kissinger apparently recovered, and was discharged from the army as a well man. Later he became almost completely helpless and for several years the family was in destitute circumstances. First efforts to obtain an adequate pension for him failed, but later by special act of congress he was granted a pension of $100 a month. A few years ago patriotic societies became interested in the family and raised sufficient money to purchase a home for the Kissingers near Huntington. Mr. Kissinger later recovered his health to the extent he can get about, and he and Mrs. Kissinger have spent the last few years in the quiet of their Huntington home. Kissinger is the last survivor of those connected with the experiment.

The mosquito had been suspected of being the carrier of yellow fever for several years prior to the Spanish American war. But it was not until after the war that a commission was appointed to investigate in earnest. Members of this commission were Major Walter Reed, Dr. James Carroll, Dr. Jesse W. Lazear and Dr. Aristides Agramonte. Walter Reed went to Cuba to personally conduct the mosquito test. The details of this experiment is told in accurate detail in the monthly bulletin of the Indiana State Board of health in April 1932, as follows:

After a preliminary study of the blood of yellow fever patients and post mortem examination of victims dead of the disease, application was made to the Military Governor of Cuba, General Leonard Wood, for permission to carry out experiments on non-immune persons with a request for money to reward volunteers who would submit themselves to experiment. Money and authority to proceed were promptly granted. Major Reed called for volunteers from the troops then in Cuba, and to the everlasting glory and honor of the American Soldier, volunteers offered themselves without fear and with disdain of reward. Before arrangements were completed Dr. Carroll allowed himself to be bitten by a mosquito that had previously filled itself with the blood of a yellow fever patient. He suffered a severe attack of the disease and recovered, thus being the first experimental case. Some days later Dr. Lazear while in the yellow fever ward, was bitten by a mosquito. He noted the fact carefully, contracted the disease and died, a martyr to science and a hero. Of those who volunteered, private John R. Kissinger and private John J. Moran were chosen.

Dr. Reed had a small frame house built, well screened in with wire netting so mosquitoes could neither get in nor out. This building was divided into two compartments by wire partitions and was known as the infected mosquito building. The two non-immunes were put in this building with exactly the same surroundings and lived and slept in these rooms for several days to demonstrate that there was no yellow fever infection in the building. Dr. Reed then put fifteen infected stegomyia mosquitoes in one of the rooms, leaving the man in this room for thirty minutes, and left one man on the other side of the wire netting. He stated that the man who had stayed thirty minutes in the infected room would come down with yellow fever within three or four days and that the other man separated from him by only a wire netting would not get sick. The man from the infected room was again placed in this room for twenty minutes on the same day and on the following day was put in the room for twenty minutes. On the first day he was bitten by seven mosquitoes, on the second day by five and on the third by three. At the end of the fourth day the man from the infected room was down with yellow fever while the man who had lived and slept in the other room remained perfectly well. Later the infected mosquitoes were taken out of the room and again a non-immune person was placed in each room remaining there for several days perfectly well.

Other experiments were conducted by which men were exposed to soiled clothing and bedding on which patients had died of yellow fever, were exposed to the bodies of those dead of the disease, exposed to the persons sick of the disease, all to prove that the infection of the disease was transmitted only through the medium of the mosquito. To further prove the infectiousness of the blood of a yellow fever patient, blood was obtained from a patient in the first three days of his sickness injected with a hypodermic syringe in the non-immune person. This person promptly developed yellow fever. In order to prove that the infection was a living germ and therefore capable of multiplying and not merely a toxin or chemical body, the blood of a yellow fever patient within the first three days of his disease was heated to 55 degrees C. and afterward inject into a non-immune person. The non-immune did not develop yellow fever. This was repeated a number of times, thus proving that the living parasite or germ in the blood of a yellow fever patient was killed by being raised to a temperature of 55 degrees C.

VOLUME VIII, Number 4 (November 1991)

Martyr To Science
By Orpha J. Weimer

My mother was a first-class squirrel.   She was interested in many things and was always saving clippings.  When we settled her estate, my brother and I spent a whole day going through a big boxful.  Years later, on my brother’s death, his wife gave me a box, marked in Mother’s handwriting.  “Family Pictures.”  I didn’t have time to go through it, as I was leaving on a long tour the next day.  It was set aside and forgotten.

When I closed my nine-room house to come to Peabody [Retirement Community], I found the box and brought it to Peabody, opening it just a few days ago.

There were a few pictures and some family news, but underneath Mother’s bedside Bible was a folded news article from the Indianapolis Star, dated August 2, 1959.  Mother died in 1947, so she wasn’t the only squirrel in the family!

The picture facing me was of a man I could recall having heard in the morning chapel speech when I first went to Manchester College in 1922.  It was John R. Kissinger of Liberty Mills.

He was a crippled fellow who walked with a cane and not a very good speaker.  He murdered the King’s English, repeated himself at times and laughed at his own jokes, but I thought he was interesting.  I knew a little bit about his subject for I had an uncle who was a doctor and read some medical journals.  Afterwards I was quite surprised to hear several local people ridiculing chapel talk as being untrue, saying Kissinger was just a lazy good-for-nothing trying to be a hero.  I wasn’t so sure they were correct, as I remember from some of my reading about the terrible yellow fever scourge and how frightened people were.  Today I am grateful that the College did honor him by having him speak.  I honestly believe he was grossly misjudged.  It all happened so long ago that I haven’t been able to get many first-hand facts.  Several old-timers say, “Yes, we knew him,” but that is about all.

Our sense of values and understandings are much different than they were in 1922 or even earlier.  Medical science and communications have improved greatly, but we still jump to pretty hasty conclusions without waiting for facts.

Medical books and encyclopedias record mostly bare facts and mostly the “top brass.”  They recorded that more American soldiers died from yellow fever or “yellow jack,” as it was commonly called in 1900, than were killed by Spanish bullets.  Or that the disease was far more prevalent in the warm, lowlands of the South, although the North, especially in port cities, had recurring outbreaks.

Newspapers likened the fever to bubonic plague and cholera.  Everyone was afraid.  No one knew what caused it or what to do; rigid quarantines were set up, and violators were shot.  A little progress had been made in its study, but no proof had been found.  It was in such an unsettled climate that young John Kissinger grew up.

From the best I could find he was born about 1880 into a poor farm family near Liberty Mills.  Land ownership meant wealth, and without it Indiana and the Midwest had little to offer.  Schools were haphazard.  Industry was meager, and, without the support of land, living was tough going.

Young John was probably an ordinary, happy-go-lucky youngster who didn’t like school very much, so, when he was 12, he quit school to help his father farm.  When he was 19, jobs were scarce, so he signed up with Co. D. of the 157th Indiana Volunteers for service in the Spanish-American War.  The war ended before he was sent to Cuba.  Like others, when a recruiter told them they were getting corpsmen together to go to the Philippines, he signed on again.  But it didn’t work out that way: he was placed in a hospital corps and at once shipped out to Cuba!

The Indianapolis Star gave a vivid account of the incident.  Walter Reed of the United States Armed Forces, differing from his superiors, was determined that yellow fever was caused by mosquitoes.  The Surgeon-General, Major Carter, believed that contaminated clothing and filth was the cause.  Reed and three of his associates devised a plan to find the proof.  They had begun in a southern hospital laboratory, but one of them was bitten by a mosquito and died.  The others quietly moved to a new camp in Cuba near Havana.  Reed ordered two sealed shacks built: one was tightly screened, the other not.  In the screened shack were mosquitoes known to be contaminated by biting a soldier who had died.  In the other were contaminated clothing and refuse.

A call for volunteers to help in the tests offered $100 pay for the test and $150 more if the volunteer became ill.  John Kissinger was now a hospital orderly.  When off duty he hung around the labs, watching and listening to doctors.  He had watched fellow soldiers writhe in pain and die in agony, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked into Major Reed’s tent as the first volunteer: “Sir, I just want to do something that might help some people.”  Eight others participated in the experiment.

On November 23, 1900, Kissinger, stripped to the waist, entered the screened mosquito cage.  Placing an infected mosquito or Kissinger’s stomach, the insect was allowed to bite him and also John J. Moran of Columbus, Ohio.  After four days of usual incubation, nothing happened.   Reed was beginning to doubt his theory but decided to give a second try.

Kissinger went back into the pesthouse on December 5, this time with five mosquito hosts, and again nothing happened.  In the meantime the other seven volunteers entered the second hut containing contaminated clothing and filth.  The stench was overwhelming, but none of them became ill.

Reed ordered a third try to find the proof he needed, and Kissinger went back to the “den of death,” as the Star called it, on December 23.  Adjusting his cape for morning inspection, Dr. Reed noticed it was much cooler.  Could that make a difference?  He ordered two small stoves installed.  Again the mosquitoes were released, and the doctors kept watch.

On Christmas Day the telltale symptoms began to develop: jaundice, severe chills, vomiting, and high fever.  Kissinger’s entire body was racked by severe pain for eight days.  Working constantly the doctors managed to pull Kissinger through, but young Moran died.  The seven volunteers who had been sealed in the second hut and away from the mosquitoes, entirely unaffected, were paid the $100 bonus and dismissed.  Now there could be no disputing the mosquito theory!

The Army made a full scale war against mosquitoes, clearing, cleaning, and disinfecting everywhere.  Yellow fever was no longer considered a plague and the disease could be treated, though they still knew little of its aftereffects.

Reed’s official reports gave full credit to the volunteers.  Of Kissinger he wrote, “No more courageous act than his has ever been recorded in the annals of the United States Army.”  Kept around for nearly a year under observation, Kissinger was proclaimed cured, was paid his $250 bonus, and was sent home.

Back home Jack Kissinger and his younger brother pooled their money and bought a farm near Wabash.  Jack however was restless, sold his interest, and moved to the west coast, where he met a young widow, Mrs. Ida Johnson, and married.  When they returned to Indiana in 1904, Jack took a job in a South Bend box factory.  Then while visiting his sister in late 1906, his legs buckled under him in a bad case of malaria and badly crippled…this was mosquito revenge.  Local doctors wanted to amputate, but he refused, sure that he could overcome it.

Because times were hard, Mrs. Kissinger took a job as a cleaning woman in the Huntington Post Office and did private washings.  Jack pulled himself about on a wheeled cart to turn the wringer for her and spent late evenings crawling about on railroad tracks near their home to pick up lumps of coal to heat their house.

One of the postal authorities who knew them finally insisted on filling out preliminary papers for jack, and the government awarded Jack a pension of $12.00 a month.  On good days he would now hobble about with crutches.  By the time the first World War came along, he could manage slowly with a cane, as I recall having seen him.  He earned a little extra income from speaking for Liberty Bond drives.  His biggest joy came when an anonymous person who heard him speak sent him a gold watch, engraved “To J.R. Kissinger.  For Courage,” a dear treasure with which he would never part.

In the mid-1920’s a couple of national magazines launched a campaign to help him, to which the government responded with a raise to $100 a month in his pension and gave him a Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for individual courage.

The American Association of Medical Progress promoted a fund drive which raised $6,000 to buy the Kissingers a small two-story on two-and-a-half acres near Huntington, along with a spotted Jersey cow called “Sunshine.”  The Kissingers named their home “Dream House.”  In 1938 they were invited to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the Walter Reed Medical Center where their pictures were taken for medical archives.

The Kissingers returned to “Dream House,” living there quietly until 1943 when he could no longer farm.  After a short time at Soldiers Home in Lafayette, they tried Clearwater, Florida, but his health did not respond.  He died in July 1946 about 60 miles from where it had all begun. 

Jack Kissinger died almost forgotten, as he had lived most of this life.  He did live long enough to see American boys fighting another war in the tropics, but they didn’t have to fight yellow jack, too.  Kissinger wanted to “help people,” and he got his wish.