The Persistent Dr. Gorgas, Part II

The Persistent Dr. Gorgas, Part II

Dr. Gorgas worked with Dr. Walter Reed in Cuba, knew of the work done with mosquitoes, but was not convinced.  Unlike others who didn’t believe in the mosquito theory, he insisted that the only way “to determine whether Stegomyia fasciata [later renamed Aedes aegypti] was the carrier…was to rid the city of that insect and see if yellow fever disappeared.”  Dr. Reed apparently thought that was impossible, and Dr. Gorgas wasn’t sure, but insisted “it was our duty to take precautions in that direction.”  His mosquito abatement campaign in Havana, begun in February 1901, changed history.  In 1900 there had been 1400 known cases of yellow fever in that city.  In 1901 there were 37 cases.

Dr. William Crawford Gorgas. He preferred to dress as a doctor rather than an army officer.
Dr. William Crawford Gorgas. He preferred to dress as a doctor rather than an army officer.

In 1902, as preparation for assignment to Panama, Dr. Gorgas attended a world conference on tropical medicine in Cairo and spend several months in Paris going over medical reports from the French canal era.  He, and the eight medical personnel accompanying him, landed in Colon in June 1904 with the job description of ridding the jungle of disease, but without supplies like disinfectant and screening.  [!!!]

As the American canal work got underway, requests for personnel and supplies “were answered evasively, if at all.  Presently he was reminded by return cable that cables were costly and henceforth to use the mails.”  Neither the members of the Isthmian Canal Commission, who had to approve all requisitions, nor most politicians of the general public, believed mosquitoes could cause either yellow fever or malaria.

David McCullough's pages on Dr. Gorgas are my primary source, andMcCullough's story-telling is superb.
David McCullough’s pages on Dr. Gorgas are my primary source, and McCullough’s story-telling is superb.

     In the autumn of 1904…Gorgas returned to Washington to plead his case.  It had been nearly four years since the epochal report of the Yellow Fever Commission…but to [the canal commissioners], Gorgas was wasting their time.  [Commissioner] Davis tried “to set him right…”On the mosquito theory you are simply wild…All who agree with you are wild.  Get the idea out of your head.”

     Before Gorgas had left for Washington, several of his staff had urged him to resign rather than face such continuing ignorance and obstructionism.  But having gotten nowhere with the commission…he had kept his tempter…The doctor was neither fighter nor schemer.  But then neither would he give up…He was not merely returning, moreover; he was returning to stay, for this time he took [his wife] with him.

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