Clara Maass Died to End Yellow Jack

Dan Graves, MSL

Clara Maass Died to End Yellow Jack

Clara Maass was just 25 when she died in Cuba in 1901. In 1976, the United States issued a stamp commemorating the Lutheran nurse. Lutherans honor her on this day, August 13, calling her a "Renewer of Society." What did she do to attain these honors?

The oldest of ten children in a German immigrant family, Clara became a caring person. She worked as a mother's helper during her high school years, then in an orphanage. At seventeen, she entered the newly opened Christina Trefz Training School of Nurses and was one of its first graduates. She must have been very good at what she did, for by the age of 21, she had become the school's head nurse.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, life held out a chance of even greater service to Clara. She became a contract nurse with the American armies. Her competent presence was felt in Georgia, Florida, Cuba, and the Philippines. She found herself fighting malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases more often than gunshots wounds.

After the war, the United States set out to find the cause of "yellow jack"-- yellow fever. Clara, having nursed patients with this deadly disease, and she wanted to see it overcome. She volunteered to be part of an experiment to understand the fever.

Two rival theories held the field. The first considered yellow fever the result of filthy conditions. The second attributed it to mosquito bites.

Under experiments conducted by Walter Reed, a team tested both theories. Men lived in filth without exposure to mosquitoes. They did not contract yellow fever. Other subjects offered themselves to be bitten by mosquitoes. Some of them came down with fever. One of them was Clara, who contracted a mild case.

Was she now immune? Some thought so. Others thought the case was too mild to build immunity. On August 14th, 1901, Clara submitted to a second mosquito bite. Soon she had a bad case of the fever. Ten days later she died. Her case clinched the matter: a mosquito was the carrier of the disease.

Although Clara was buried with military honors, no fuss was made over her until thirty years later when another nurse stumbled across the facts, researched her story and raised funds for a memorial. Much later, in honor of her brave self-sacrifice, the United States issued the stamp shown here. Clara, by the way, was the first nurse honored on a U.S. postage stamp. If yellow fever does not threaten the world today as it did a century ago, it is in part owing to the Christian courage of Clara Maass.

Bibliography:

  1. "Clara Maass." Their Stamp on History. http://www.stamponhistory.com/people/maass.html
  2. Dock, Lavinia L and Stewart, Isabel M. A Short History of Nursing. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1938
  3. "Who Was Clara Maass?" St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church. http://www.stpaulsryebrook.com/excerpts/tr_6.htm#index
  4. Various internet and encyclopedia articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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