Clara Louise Maass was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on June 28th 1876. She was the eldest of ten children born to devout Lutheran German immigrants, Robert Maass and his wife Hedwig.
Clara trained as a nurse at the Christina Trefz Training School at the Newark German Hospital in Essex County. She became one of the school’s first graduates in 1895 and remained at the German hospital for the next three years. Whilst there, Clara quickly earned a reputation as a particularly hard working and dedicated member of staff and was eventually promoted to head nurse.
In 1898, America declared war on Spain following the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba and repeated conflicts of interest in the Pacific. When the Spanish-American War began, Clara volunteered as a contract nurse for the United States Army and served at bases and hospitals in Jacksonville, Florida, Savannah, Georgia, and Santiago (Cuba) before being discharged in 1899.
The Spanish-American War ended with the Spanish Empire relinquishing sovereignty of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States for $20 million. Almost immediately a new conflict erupted in the Philippines as Philippine Republic forces attempted to prevent an American military presence in the islands. The American-Philippine war would last for three years, one month, one day and would see hundreds of thousands killed.
In 1899, Clara once again volunteered to serve with the U.S. Army and left for the Philippines. During her service, Clara noted that despite the fierce fighting that was taking place, relatively few of the men she was treating had injuries received in battle. The majority were suffering from infectious tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever. Clara eventually contracted dengue herself while staying in Manila and was sent back to the US.
In 1910 Clara was summoned to Cuba by the renowned Army physician, William C. Gorgas who was working for the U.S. Army’s Yellow Fever Commission. The commission was established in Cuba following the American-Spanish war to investigate the causes of yellow fever. Cuba was in the grips of an epidemic and the US government were desperate to identify how the disease spread.
The commission was forced recruited human test subjects as, at this time, it was unknown if any other animal species could contract yellow fever. The tests would be first recorded instance of informed consent in human experiments as it was fully explained to all volunteers that participation in the experiment could lead to their deaths.
In March 1901, Clara volunteered herself as a test subject. Knowing full well the potential risks involved, she allowed herself to be bitten by a mosquito that had recently fed on yellow fever patients. She contracted a mild case of the disease but quickly recovered.By 1900, scientists were confident that mosquitoes were responsible for the spread of the disease. However, they lacked the scientific evidence to prove it as a number of volunteers who had been bitten by infected mosquitos remained healthy.
Clara continued to volunteer for experiments and on August 14, 1901 allowed herself to be bitten by infected mosquitoes for the second time. Gorgas was hoping to show that her earlier exposure to the disease was enough to immunize her against reinfection but sadly, this was not the case. Clara fell ill on August 18th and passed away five days later on August 24th.
Clara Mass’ death was reported widely and she was buried with full military honors. The Newark German Hospital where she trained now bears her name and both Cuba and the United States Government have issued stamps in her honor.