On 14 August 1881, Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay stood before an audience at the Royal Academy of Medical, Physical and Natural Sciences in Havana and read a paper entitled, “The Mosquito Hypothetically Considered as the Agent of Transmission of Yellow Fever.”1 His paper was summarily dismissed by the assemblage.
Finlay based his conclusions on his extensive study of the anatomy, physiology, and biting practices of the Culex mosquito. Vindication of his yellow fever hypothesis came in 1900, through the exhaustive investigations of the Yellow Fever Commission under the direction of Walter Reed. Even though Reed acknowledged Finlay's important contribution to the understanding of yellow fever transmission, Finlay's role is often overlooked.
Born in Cuba in 1833, Carlos Finlay grew up as a person of broad intellectual interests. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia and went to France for further training. Although his main passion was yellow fever, his research interests were diverse. He proposed that a cholera epidemic in 1867 had been caused by sewage contamination of the public water supply—a suggestion greeted at the time with disdain. His published work included concerns about environmental hazards associated with manufacture of soap and the production of illuminating gas, the causes of high mortality from infantile tetanus in Cuba, and reflections on the law of gravity and the philosophy of science. As a hobby, he translated antique Latin manuscripts into Spanish.
With the end of the Spanish-American War and the independence of Cuba in 1902, Finlay was appointed Cuba's Chief Sanitary Officer. His election in 1905 as president of the American Public Health Association indicates his international reputation.
Carlos Finlay died in 1915 in Havana. William Gorgas, the Surgeon-General of the US Army (and the person who had led the eradication of Aedes aegypti from Cuba and the Panama Canal region) told the 43rd Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association that “No country owes a greater debt of gratitude to Doctor Finlay than does the United States.”2
Carlos Finlay was nominated 7 times for a Nobel Prize, but was never awarded the honor.
1. Finlay CJ. El mosquito hipotéticamente considerado como agente de transmision de la fiebre amarilla. [Reprinted in: Medical Classics 2
. 1938;6:590.] Anales de la Real Academia de Ciencias Médicas Físicas y Naturales de la Habana
2. Del Regato JA. Carlos Juan Finlay (1833–1915). J Public Health Policy.