Dr. Guilford B. Reed: The Influenza Vaccine That (sort of) Worked

The following blog post was contributed by Andrew Belyea, who is the Museum of Health Care’s 2017 Margaret Angus Research Fellow. Andrew has a degree in Life Science from Queen’s University and will start at the Queen’s School of Medicine in the fall.  This is Andrew’s fourth blog post in a series he will be writing throughout the summer. Special thanks to Trustees of the Estate of Larry Gibson, Graeme Fraser & Jay Rayner, for their generous support of this fellowship.

Born in Port George, Nova Scotia in 1887, Dr. Guilford Bevil Reed grew up on the East coast as the son of the prominent ship builder and architect, William Reed. While living in the Annapolis Valley, Guilford developed a deep love of the natural world. He spent his days surrounded by five siblings and endless apple orchards, and maintained a curiosity that propelled him throughout his life.

He entered the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro at the age of 17 and then five years later (1909) enrolled at Acadia University to take Languages and Literature. Midway through his degree, he transferred to Harvard University where he obtained his B.Sc. magna cum laude in 1912, an M.A. in 1913, and a Ph.D. in 1915. Following a brief study of the East coast’s geology from Newfoundland to Florida, Dr. Reed accepted William MacClement’s request to join Queen’s University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany in 1915.

When the Great War broke out, Dr. W.T. Connell, elected the University’s first professor of Pathology and Bacteriology in 1895, was sent to Cairo with the Queen’s No. 5 Stationary Hospital. Upon his return, he was so inundated with myriad responsibilities that Dr. Reed was appointed as an assistant in the Department. At this time, Dr. Reed also volunteered for the local reserves and served as Captain in the Canadian Army Medical Corps at the Queen’s Military Convalescent Hospital, located in Grant Hall. Although the hospital was set up to treat returning soldiers, the unavoidable influx of influenza cases encouraged Dr. Reed’s intimacy with and curiosity about the virus. Dr. Reed’s work on influenza was to be his first major academic endeavor.

The annual Principal’s Report of 1918 acknowledged Dr. Reed’s work for “research on the Variability of Certain Bacteria, particularly the Influenza Bacilli.” The following year, Dr. Reed was awarded $150 from the University to hire a research assistant and continue his work in the field. In conjunction with his research assistant, Mr. William Hay (Queen’s B.A. ’14, M.A. ’14, M.D. ’21), later a physician in the Department, Professor Reed reported the following in the Principal’s Report of 1919:

“With the assistance of Mr. Hay several problems in the behaviour of B. Influenza which were begun during the epidemic of 1918 have been continued. Some six strains of the organism have been carried through many generations on a variety of culture media with the result that though variations were frequently observed it was found impossible to permanently alter the species by selection. The variations that did occur were found to depend directly upon the media on which they were grown, and make it possible to alter the structure of the organism at will. Although results were published before we were well under way covering the projects we had outlined concerning the toxicity of B. Influenza, we continued with sufficient work to completely confirm the important finding that this species produces a highly virulent soluble toxin.”

Dr. Guilford B. Reed in front of the Kingston Biological Warfare Laboratory. At the start of WWII, Canada’s National Research Council funded Dr. Reed’s gas warfare research because of the Government’s concern surrounding the effectiveness of gas attacks in WWI.

In 1919, the Department of Pathology and Bacteriology was divided into individual departments, with Dr. Reed heading the Department of Bacteriology. He received additional funding from the University and hired two assistants to support the research on “‘Variation of Bacteria’ for four months at $50 per month each.”

His 1918 work remained unpublished until June 1921 when an article entitled “Some Results of Protective Inoculation against Epidemic Influenza” was released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In this article, Reed outlined the effectiveness of a vaccine he developed to combat the deadly virus. While the Spanish Flu was in its infancy on October 1, 1918, Reed took naso-pharyngeal swabs of 70 patients with influenza. He analyzed the swabs for their bacterial content and found 94% of swabs had Bacillus influenzae (modern Haemophilus influenzae type b), 50% pneumococci, 56% Green-producing Streptococci (modern Streptococcus pneumoniae), and 31% Moraxella catarrhalis. From these four bacterial species, ten strains of B. influenza and pneumococci, along with five strains of streptococci and M. catarrhalis, were grown in pure cultures on agar with rabbit’s blood. From these cultures, Reed developed a vaccine and inoculated 193 medical students, 142 of whom received three doses of his concoction. He followed them for two 8-week periods with encouraging results, shown in Table 1 and Table 2, which are explained below.

Table 1. Men not inoculated with vaccine.
Number of Cases Percent of Cases
Men in group not inoculated 51
Cases of influenza among men not inoculated, period:

Oct 1 – Nov 1, 1918

22 45.3
Cases of influenza among men not inoculated, period:

Dec 1, 1918 – Jan31, 1919

2 6.9
Table 2. Men inoculated with vaccine.
Number of Cases Percent of Cases
Men in group given three inoculations 142
Cases of influenza among inoculated, period:

Oct 1 – Nov 1, 1918

17 12
Cases of influenza among inoculated, period:

Dec 1, 1918 – Jan31, 1919

10 8

Table 1 and Table 2 compare Flu prevalence for individuals who received the vaccine and those who did not. Reed observed hope for the vaccine’s effectiveness, with fewer Flu cases seen in vaccinated people. The most encouraging result is the 8-week period following October 1, 1918: 45.3% of unvaccinated individuals contracted the flu, while only 12% of vaccinated individuals contracted the flu. Even more exciting are the results from several military units in the district (M.D. No. 3), including units in Kingston, Ottawa, Cobourg, and Deseronto. About 16.2% of officers and soldiers in M.D. No. 3 elected to receive the vaccine. The results of the study are displayed in Table 3.

Table 3. Results from the Inoculation of Military Personnel in M.D. No. 3 with the Mixed Influenza Vaccine. Data collected by Major S.E. Thompson, Sanitary Officer M.D. No. 3.
Number of Cases Percent of Cases
Men not inoculated 4668
Cases of influenza among men not inoculated 1012 21.6
Men inoculated, 2 or 3 doses 907
Cases of influenza among inoculated men 7 0.8

This table shows the large decrease of influenza cases with the use of the vaccine. The vaccine was distributed to physicians throughout eastern Ontario, all of whom were also sent a follow-up questionnaire asking how their patients responded to the vaccine. Twenty-eight of the thirty physicians returned a completed survey. When amassing the data, it appeared as though receiving any number of doses – one, two or three inoculations – was better than nothing; 5.8% of patients who received one or more doses contracted influenza as compared to general population estimates of between 5-50% according to Dr. Reed. With particular reference to the B. influenzae strain, 22% of non-inoculated persons, versus 3.2% of inoculated individuals, developed influenza.

Despite the promise of Dr. Reed’s work, his research did not lead to any significant treatment protocol changes. This is likely due to the following reasons: the epidemic, although devastating, was fairly transient and was over before physicians could react effectively; it was also challenging to produce a high number of vaccines in such a short time; unfortunately, Dr. Reed’s work was inconclusive and unable to demonstrate acceptable effectiveness to move forward in a rapid manner; and lastly, by the time his article was published in June 1921, the community’s focus had shifted to other more pressing issues including a sweeping Typhoid epidemic. Had the Spanish Influenza taken place over several years rather than a few months, Dr. Reed’s work would certainly have garnered more attention.


  • 1930 – Began working with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. During WWII, he served as a scientific consultant to the Canadian army working on rinderpest, a condition characterized by inflammation of the mucosal membrane in ruminants, caused by the paramyxovirus. He developed an effective agent to protect cattle from the condition.
  • 1932 – Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
  • 1940s – Engaged in top-secret biological warfare research, developing the Kingston Biological Warfare Laboratory. Worked to mass-produce the anthrax virus. Developed 10 lbs of botulinus toxin, enough to deliver 5 billion lethal doses. Don’t worry, it was carried away on a secret train to Alberta, or so they say…
  • 1942 – Awarded the Order of the British Empire for identifying and controlling the causal organisms for gas gangrene.
  • 1952 – Elected President of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest academic honour available to Canadian citizens.

Dr. Reed’s CMAJ article entitled “Some Results of Protective Inoculation against Epidemic Influenza” can be found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1524167/

For more about Dr. Reed’s secret biological warfare research, go to http://www.queensu.ca/175/moments/queens-wartime-secret

Those interested in further readings on Dr. Reed can find a synopsis of his life and work in the Queen’s Encyclopedia (http://www.queensu.ca/encyclopedia/r/reed-guilford-bevil) or, for a more thorough history, Chapter 24 of A.A. Travill’s “Medicine at Queen’s; 1854-1920” is an excellent resource. Additional reading can be found in the Principal’s Report 1918/1919, Queen’s University Archives.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Guilford B. Reed: The Influenza Vaccine That (sort of) Worked

  1. A most interesting article. Guilford was my great-uncle. I knew about his rinderpest research and about his work with anthrax during the war, but I had no idea he had researched influenza at the height of the epidemic.

    My father wokred with Guilford during the war and also in the summers after the war while he was completing his MD.

    A couple of things on the personal details. There were four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. You have also inflated his father’s occupation. In 1871 and 1881 he was described as a cabinet maker, in 1891 and 1901 as a carpenter and in 1911 as an undertaker in Berwick, NS.

    David Reed

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