John Kissinger was looking for a life in the military when he marched into the annals of history.
Born in 1877 in Ohio, Kissinger’s family moved to a farm in Wabash County when he was a boy. Eager for action, he volunteered for the Indiana National Guard but his unit was not called up in 1898 for the short-lived Spanish-American War. A day after his volunteer service ended, he enlisted in the regular army, hoping for infantry assignment. A medical officer determined one of Kissinger’s toes was too long, which disqualified him from the infantry. He accepted a hospital assignment in Cuba.
There was still an enemy to fight. Yellow fever — also known as “Yellow Jack” — was killing more soldiers than had been lost in fighting. The French had lost 20,000 men to the disease while attempting to build a canal across Panama.
Doctors in Cuba, including American Walter Reed, were conducting experiments focusing on mosquitos to find the source of the disease. Kissinger overheard doctors say they were looking for human test subjects. He went to Dr. Reed and volunteered, declining the $200 bonus that was being offered. Dr. Reed later declared, “This exhibition of moral courage has never been surpassed in the annals of the Army of the United States.”
Kissinger bared his arm to mosquito bites in two trials, with no results. A third trial was conducted, and seven days later, Kissinger started feeling chilled with severe joint pain. He had contracted yellow fever.
Kissinger suffered for eight days. He survived, losing 30 pounds over that time. But he had provided the doctors with data they needed to develop a vaccine for the disease. By 1901, yellow fever was under control. Millions of lives were likely saved. The development allowed Americans to take up the task of building the Panama Canal, which contributed to making the United States a global power.
Kissinger quietly went home, where he met and married Ida Johnson. Though he survived yellow fever, health problems persisted. Eventually, he lost the ability to walk. Kissinger applied for a military pension, but was turned down.
The Kissingers moved to Huntington. With John unable to work, Ida took a job cleaning the Huntington Post Office. They took in washing, but could only manage two washings a day. Wheelchair-bound, John hunted for stray lumps of coal along the railroad tracks so they could keep their meager accommodations warm in the winter.
The Huntington Red Cross stepped in to help the Kissingers. the resulting publicity made John became a national hero. Funds were raised to purchase the Kissingers a “dream home” along Flaxmill Road.
At the same time, John began to regain feeling in his legs. He eventually learned to walk again. He became involved with many Huntington service organizations, and in1929 Congress presented him with a special gold medal for his bravery. In 1938, a movie titled “Yellow Jack” was made based on the yellow fever experiments. Kissinger was consulted on the project and he and Ida attended the premiere in New York.
Kissinger regained enough of his health to travel the country giving lectures, and always said what he endured had been worth all the suffering, because he knew he had saved the lives of others.
John Kissinger died in 1946 and Ida died in 1949. Both are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Huntington.