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The Problem: Health and the Panama Canal oceans by boat was a long and arduous trip down around the tip of South America. Travel across North America was time consuming and challenging and travel across the narrowest part of the continent the Isthmus of Panama could greatly shorten the travel time. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 generated more interest in crossing more quickly. To that end, a railroad across the Isthmus was opened in 1855; an effort that although accomplished rapidly, still resulted in 12,000 deaths. But it was still thought that a shipping route across the Isthmus, a canal, would facilitate travel and shipping. An engineer surveyed the route and proposed a canal. The French, encouraged by their success with the Suez Canal, set out to build a sea level canal in a tropical and mountainous area far less salubrious than the Suez. Beginning in 1880, the French effort was plagued by geographical, climatic and health issues; ranging from landslides, accidents, and deaths. Diseases that plagued the tropical region included typhoid, pneumonia, cholera, bubonic plague, beriberi and dysentery. But the most serious were tropical diseases prevalent in hot, swampy regions; yellow fever and malaria. The working conditions created by engineering rates that decimated the work force; 22,000 workers perished in the nine years of the French effort. When news of the working conditions spread, skilled laborers refused to sign on or to continuing working. By 1889 the French effort to build the canal, plagued especially by tropical fevers, had collapsed.Images from Roads and Railroads University of Florida Digital Collections.
History and Impact of Disease Epidemic and infectious diseases played major roles in shaping history. Of these diseases, malaria and yellow fever stand out for their mortality/morbidity rates, seasonality, and presence in warm, swampy regions. Because of this association, they could render particular areas uninhabitable, and affected migration and settlement patterns. Because malaria and yellow fever both were common in these warmer, damper, mosquito-ridden areas (although the mosquito connection was invisible for many centuries), and fever was part of the disease, they often were lumped together as tropical fevers. They also were believed to be associated with miasmas, or bad airthe Italian origins for the word malaria. Malaria had a geographic wide distribution ranging from England, the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia, and in North America into the Great Plains. Malaria is caused by a single-celled parasite, Plasmodium which is injected into the bloodstream by the Anopheles mosquito. It is characterized by a fever that waxes and wanes as the parasite breeds within the hosts red blood cells. Malaria is more likely to cause illness and to weaken than to kill, although certain strains are deadlier than others. This disease has affected human genes, with at least 5 mutations, including the gene for sickle cell anemia, conferring some resistance to malarial infection. It also was thought to affect settlement patterns in China, the Middle East, and even North America. A more deadly strain of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum brought from Africa through the Atlantic Slave Trade, would make Western Hemisphere tropics deadly. Yellow fever was more deadly and had higher mortality rates than malaria. Carried by the Aedes mosquito, it is an unmistakable illness, with symptoms including jaundice and black vomit. It probably originated on the African continent and was brought to the Americas along with malaria. It became endemic in the Caribbean and made periodic inroads into North America. Epidemics struck as ships brought infection from warmer Philadelphia different political parties were associated with different treatments with one party losing power create a municipal government and sanitation system. The need for centralized responses led to creation of the National Board of Health. The two diseases shaped populations and relations in the tropical world and elsewhere. more dramatic and important than in building the Panama Canal and especially in the early French failure. And without the discovery of the disease vectors, the U.S. would lost far more lives. Clockwise from top: page from Report of the Department of Health of the Panama Canal for the year 1914 and Malaria Admission Rate Among Employees Panama Canal 1906-1953 University of Florida Digital Collections.
Addressing the Problem In the period between French efforts to build a canal (1880-1889) and American acquisition of the territory (1904), medical fever, focusing disease control efforts on preventing transmission by eradicating mosquitoes. Prior to this knowledge, focus on sanitation quarantine and cleanliness had limited success. Ultimately, eliminating mosquito breeding sites and excluding the insects from homes would dramatically decrease death rates in urban areas (Cuba) and swampy rural areas (Panama). Discovered in 1880 by Charles Alphonse Laveran, malaria parasites were shown to be transmitted by mosquitoes by Ronald Batista Grassi and a team of Italian investigators showed human transmission and the lifecycle of Plasmodium in humans. Malaria provided an example of a mosquito borne disease, but the search for yellow fevers cause occurred generally without reference to this work. In 1881, personal observations in Havana provided the basis for his theory which included identifying the responsible mosquito, although he was unable to rising interest in tropical fevers after the Spanish American War led the Walter Reed returned to Cuba as part of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission to study yellow fever. Walter Reed was able to show that mosquitoes transmitted the disease and that it was not caused by contact with infected individuals, or their bedding. The process required human volunteers who were willing to risk contracting the disease. Several of the volunteers died from their exposure. Aedes mosquito made it possible to fumigate homes, eliminate standing water and control the mosquito in urban areas. Thus, within a short period of time, yellow fever was eradicated in Havana. When he heard about the U.S. plans to build the canal, Gorgas requested a transfer to Panama, believing methods for eliminating the yellow fever-carrying mosquito could translate to the rural areas of Panama. Malaria would be a bigger challenge but efforts could reduce morbidity. Clockwise from top: Images from Mosquito Control and page from Sanitation in Panama (William C. Gorgas). University of Florida Digital Collections.
Applying Knowledge of Mosquitoes effort to control mosquitoes in the Canal Zone, which was acquired by the United States that same year. Ancon Hospital Images Top Row: Gen. W. C. Gorgas, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915 Library of Congress; Pages from Sanitation in Panama (William C. Gorgas). University of Florida Digital Collections. Middle Row: Ancon Hospital, Ward 13 (Colored) Section C Aug 1919 Images from the History of Medicine (NLM). Bottom Row: Employment Documents for Miss Anna L. Doolittle (nurse) George A. Smathers Libraries Panama Canal Collection. Ancon Hospital was renamed Gorgas Hospital in 1928