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William Crawford Gorgas and the Panama Canal

Dr. Walter Reed discovered that the Aedes mosquito transmits the yellow fever virus. William Crawford Gorgas, serving in Havana, Cuba, under Reed during the Spanish-American War, made good use of Reed's discovery. He eradicated breeding places for mosquitoes and took measures to prevent mosquitoes from biting infected patients and transmitting the disease to healthy individuals. (Malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito, which is present in the same areas as the Aedes mosquito.) Gorgas realized that mosquitoes also bred indoors. Legs of hospital beds were placed in flat dishes filled with water to keep tropical crawling bugs from getting onto patients. Gorgas treated this standing water and placed screens around patients to keep the disease from spreading. (The Gorgas House in Tuscaloosa has some of these dishes with the legs of a pie safe standing in them.)

The deLesseps company failed to build a canal across Panama because of a high death rate among workers. The United States acquired the Panama Canal Zone in l903 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Gorgas went to Panama in l904 when epidemics were raging. Despite considerable opposition to his work, Gorgas cleared the area of disease in less than a year. His sanitation success made it possible for the U.S. to build the canal. He refused an offer in 1911 to become president of the University of Alabama because of his determination to see the canal project through to completion. He was the only U.S. official who remained on the canal project from beginning to end.

As U.S. Surgeon General during World War I, he was concerned about the sanitation of army camps and the health of U.S. soldiers. He refused lucrative private offers such as that from the Rockefeller Foundation. When the United States became involved in World War I, his attention turned to the care of the sick and wounded soldiers.

In the 1880s, while stationed at Brownsville, Texas, Gorgas met Marie Doughty, who was visiting her sister at the army base. She contracted a nearly fatal case of yellow fever, Gorgas contracted a mild case, and the two met while they recovered. They were married in l885 and had one daughter.

Gorgas was known as a most compassionate, caring doctor. One patient remembered that it was worth having yellow fever just to be cared for by Gorgas. His personality made him extremely successful in persuading public officials to follow his sanitation instructions. When he retired in 1918, he accepted an offer from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel to South America to advise on the eradication of yellow fever. Thereafter he traveled to Europe on his way to South Africa to consult on diseases there. He died in London in 1920 en route to South Africa. After a huge funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.