William Crawford Gorgas Biography (1854-1920)

physician, Surgeon General; U.S. Army

United States military man and physician, William Crawford Gorgas, first gained recognition for eradicating yellow fever and malaria in Havana, Cuba. Due to this amazing feat, in 1902, United States Surgeon General Dr. George M. Sternberg recommended Gorgas be placed in charge of solving the same problem in Panama. When the U.S. government assumed control of Panama from the French and took over construction of the Panama Canal, they were forcedto abandon the project because of yellow fever. Gorgas was appointed chief sanitary officer of the zone in 1904, receiving commission to implement mosquito-control methods along the entire canal zone. By late 1907, his efforts hadtotally eliminated the disease from the area, enabling continued construction and successful completion of the canal. Gorgas was elected to the Alabama Hall of Fame in 1953.

Gorgas was born near Mobile, Alabama, the first child of General Josiah Gorgas who, originally from Pennsylvania, was a chief ordnance officer in the Confederate Army; and Amelia Gayle, the daughter of a governor of Alabama. Gorgasfirst attended Sewanee University, ultimately becoming a gold medal student.From 1876 to 1879, he attended Bellevue Medical College in New York City where he studied medicine and accepted an internship. His dream of entering themilitary was fulfilled in June 1880 when he was commissioned as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

When Dr. Ronald Reed discovered that mosquitoes carried the dreaded malaria and yellow fever, not everyone believed his findings. Gorgas did, however, andit was he who implemented the huge mosquito control program in Havana, Cuba,where, in the early 1900s, 500 people were dying each year from the diseases. By 1902, Gorgas' efforts had yellow fever entirely eradicated. When the United States assumed control of Panama, tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, and diphtheria were all troublesome; however, yellow fever and malaria alone had killed an estimated ten to twenty thousand people there between 1882 and 1888. When Gorgas was commissioned to take on the daunting task of eradicating those diseases, he found an abundanceof open sewage drains and shallow trenches dug by the French and filled withwater as protection from ferocious umbrella ants. These pools became stagnant and putrid in the hot climate--perfect breeding grounds for the disease-carrying mosquito.

Amazingly, Gorgas' work was greatly hampered by U.S. government officials inthe zone who refused to accept the mosquito theory. They not only denied himauthority to implement his plans and hindered shipment of supplies from the United States, they tried desperately to have him dismissed from the project--until, in 1905, several top officials died from yellow fever. Fortunately forthe entire project, President Theodore Roosevelt knew of Gorgas' success inHavana and, encouraged by John F. Stevens, the newly appointed chief engineerof the canal project, gave Gorgas his full support. Stevens immediately assigned 4,000 workers to the sanitation effort and approved an unlimitedbudget for supplies.

The crews set to work, first covering the stagnant waterways with an oil andpesticide combination, then fumigating every house. Infected people were quarantined in screened-in tents, running water was supplied to the homes, streets were paved, and entirely new communities emerged. Within two years, 24,000workers lived in a disease-free zone. When Gorgas wrote his book Sanitation in Panama in 1915, he said, "...it is now more than eight years, and not a case of yellow fever has originated in the Isthmus." He also wrote, withamazing perception, "No doubt the great centers of civilization will remain for centuries much as they are at present. The white settlers will go to the valleys of the Amazon and Congo, building up large agricultural communities which will supply the European and American centers...I believe that the peoples of that day will look back upon the sanitary work done at the Canal Zone asthe first great demonstration that the white man could live as well in the tropics as in the temperate zone. I am inclined to think that at this time thesanitary phase of the work will be considered more important than the actualconstruction of the canal itself, as important to the world as this great waterway now is, and will be for generations to come."

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