The Persistent Dr. Gorgas, Part I

The Persistent Dr. Gorgas, Part I

“If there is any one man whose work is above criticism, it is Col. W. C. Gorgas.”
                                                                        William Richard Hobby, interview by The Iowa City News, 1909

Whether the canal would have been completed without Dr. Gorgas is questionable, but that many—perhaps most—of the canal builders owed their lives to him is unquestionable.  He was also a good man.

David McCullough’s biography, worked into several chapters of The Path Between the Seas, is better quoted than paraphrased:

As a child in Richmond, he [Gorgas] had seen Lee and Jackson confer with his father in the front parlor, and in the final winter of the war, as ragged Confederate troops filled the street, he insisted, at age ten, on going barefoot.
   …determined to be a soldier, much against his father’s wishes, he tried for an appointment to West Point.  When West Point turned him down, he chose medicine because it was the only way left to get into the Army.

     Classmates at Bellevue Medical College in New York would remember “Billy” Gorgas as a devout Christian, a careless speller, too poor to go home for vacations, the most likable man in his class, and “imperturbable.”

     In 1882 he was assigned to Fort Brown on the Rio Grande, close to the border settlement of Brownsville where the [yellow fever] epidemic raged… Gorgas proved so very persistent, ignoring strict orders to stay away from the infected wards, that he was temporarily put under arrest.

 Both Dr. Gorgas and Marie Doughty, sister-in-law of the post commander and an acquaintance of Dr. Gorgas, contracted yellow fever, survived, and convalesced at the same time.  Marie became his wife.  Dr. Gorgas also served on northern frontier outposts.

William Gorgas
William Gorgas

He learned discipline, acquired an unequivocating devotion to duty.  His wife would recall nights when, wrapped in buffalo robes, he would set off in a sleigh in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard to deliver an Indian baby in a cabin sometimes thirty miles away.

     He advanced…to major by the time of the Cuban war, but preferred then, as later, to be called Dr. Gorgas.  When the American forces occupied Havana in 1898, he was put in charge of the yellow fever camp in Siboney…But Gorgas was no closer to understanding the cause of yellow fever than he had ever been.

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