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10 Hispanic Scientists You Should Know


10
Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1915)
This colorful mosquito is called Sabethes cyaneus. Some species from the Sabethes genus are a reservoir for yellow fever. Carlos Juan Finlay first connected mosquitoes to yellow fever back in the 19th century. Image courtesy James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
This colorful mosquito is called Sabethes cyaneus. Some species from the Sabethes genus are a reservoir for yellow fever. Carlos Juan Finlay first connected mosquitoes to yellow fever back in the 19th century. Image courtesy James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Before Google doodles, we honored important forgotten figures with postage stamps. Carlos Juan Finlay, the Cuban physician who first linked yellow fever to mosquitoes in 1881, has received both tributes. Given the thousands of lives he saved and the decades of scorn he endured, we'd say he deserved them.

Born in Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, Finlay studied abroad before returning to Havana as a general practitioner and ophthalmologist with a penchant for scientific research. At the time, yellow fever still ravaged the tropics, terrorizing populations and disrupting shipping, especially in Havana [sources: Frierson; Haas; PBS; WHO; UVHSL].

Finlay noticed that yellow fever epidemics roughly coincided with Havana's mosquito season, but his mosquito-transmission hypothesis was met with disdain for decades until he convinced American military surgeon Walter Reed (like the hospital) to look into it. Reed and his colleagues, who had been dispatched to Cuba to fight the disease that had killed so many soldiers during the Spanish-American War, helped Finlay improve his experiments and verified that the species now known as Aedes aegypti was indeed the culprit. Yellow fever was wiped out of Cuba as well as Panama, enabling engineers to finally complete the Panama Canal [sources: Haas; PBS; UVHSL].

Today, yellow fever afflicts roughly 200,000 and kills 30,000 people annually, mostly in African areas lacking vaccines. Symptom reduction remains the only treatment; untreated, the disease has a 50 percent mortality rate. Occurrences of yellow fever have ramped up in recent years [sources: WHO].