Naval medical officer associated with the fight against yellow fever, John W. Ross was born January 11, 1843, near Clarksville, the son of educator John Ross and Mary Parker Ross. In 1861 young Ross enlisted in the Confederate cavalry and served throughout the war. In 1870 he graduated from Tulane University with a degree in medicine and entered the U.S. Navy as an assistant surgeon.
Ross became associated with the fight against yellow fever in 1878, when he worked with the Howard Association to combat the disease in Holly Springs, Mississippi. That same year, he volunteered to work in the Memphis outbreak of yellow fever and contracted the disease himself. He remained in the city two years and was rewarded for his service with a promotion.
During the early 1880s, Ross returned to sea duty and served in the Pacific. By 1886 he was back in the South, stationed at the Navy Yard and Navy Hospital at Pensacola, Florida. When a yellow fever epidemic broke out in East Florida, Ross again volunteered for duty and was placed in charge of the hospital facilities at Fernandina. He served in Florida and Cuba during the Spanish-American War and became Chief of the Department of Charities Hospitals in Havana (1899-1900). In 1901 he was placed in charge of the Yellow Fever Hospital at Las Animas, Havana, where he carried out experiments that disproved the popular theory that contact with clothing or personal items of yellow fever patients was the method of transmission of the disease.
As a result of his experience with yellow fever and his experiments regarding the transmission of the disease, Ross was named medical director of the Navy in 1903 and assigned duty with Colonel William Crawford Gorgas under the Isthmian Canal Commission at the Canal Zone. By the end of 1904 he was forced to leave by an attack of estuo autumnal fever, from which he never fully recovered.
Ross retired from the navy and moved to California in 1905. In 1900 he married Clara Clayton, daughter of Alexander Mosby Clayton, judge of the Supreme Court of Mississippi. Ross died on February 8, 1920, at Pasadena, California. His correspondence and medical journals are available in the Tennessee State Library and Archives.