The Persistent Dr. Gorgas: Part III

The Persistent Dr. Gorgas: Part III

The panic of 1905 took the Panama Canal project to the brink of failure.  Although more people died of malaria, pneumonia, and dysentery than of yellow fever, it was the sudden onset and violence of “Yellow Jack” that sent three quarters of American workers on the next ship home.

As for the canal work itself, antiquated equipment was in use or abandoned.  Supplies accumulated on docks with no one to distribute them.  Local merchants jacked food prices until the men could not afford to eat enough for survival.

And whether to construct a sea level or lock canal had not been decided.

Then Chief Engineer John Wallace resigned and was replaced by John Stevens who backed Dr. Gorgas.

Again, I cannot improve on David McCullough‘s description:

Stevens made no public declaration of faith in Gorgas or the mosquito theory…Still, [his] own instinct was that the only way to back Gorgas was to back him to the fullest.  When a movement began in Washington to have Dr. Gorgas removed…Stevens fought back.  [Theodore Shonts, head of the Canal Commission] had found a replacement for Gorgas,…Hamilton Wright, and went to Oyster Bay to tell Roosevelt what he intended to do…

 Roosevelt asked [Dr.] Welch for a recommendation for …Wright … But, while testifying to Wright’s ability, Welch insisted there was no one better equipped for the work than Gorgas.  [Roosevelt’s] friend and hunting companion, Dr. Alexander Lambert…expressed his views in a private conversation… “You are facing one of the greatest decisions of your career.  You must choose between Shonts and Gorgas.  If you fall back on old methods of sanitation, you will fail, much as the French failed.  If you back up Gorgas and his ideas and let him pursue his campaign against the mosquito, you will get your canal.”

Shonts was called to the White House and told to “get back of Gorgas.”  To his great credit, he accepted the decision…

Gorgas henceforth had first call for labor.  His requisitions had priority over all others.  By November there were four thousand men working solely on Gorgas’ projects.  Until then, for all expenses and supplies, Gorgas had been limited to an annual budget of %50,000.  Steven would sign requisitions for $90,000 for screening alone.  Gorgas now got all the supplies he needed and with a minimum of red tape.

…The eradication of yellow fever at Havana had taken eight months. At Panama it took nearly a year and a half…Once Gorgas’ program was under way, the incidence of yellow fever fell off with the same suddenness as at Havana.  The epidemic was over by September, when there were only seven cases and four deaths.  On an afternoon some weeks later, Gorgas and several of his staff gathered in the dissecting room to perform an autopsy.  Gorgas told them to “take a good look at this man,” for he was the last yellow-fever cadaver they would see.  By December the disease had disappeared from the isthmus.  

The above quotation is from The Path Between the Seas.

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.

The above quotation is from McCullough’s Path Between the Seas.

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