Taming Mankind's Ancient Foes: Despite Inherent Dangers and Entrenched Opposition, a Handful of Men Tracked Down the Sources of Yellow Fever and Malaria, and Devised Methods to Combat Their Spread

Article excerpt

Disaster was bearing down on them. Of this Major William Gorgas was certain. It could be a few scant months away, but more likely only weeks. Perhaps they had only days. It was 1904, and Panama was bustling with excitement and activity as work on "The Big Ditch" was about to begin. A canal through the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was a colossal undertaking. If successful, it would revolutionize global travel, communication, and commerce. Could the Americans succeed where the earlier French effort, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the celebrated builder of the Suez Canal, had failed so miserably?

The eyes of the world were on Panama. The eyes of Major Gorgas were on the arriving steamers that daily disgorged hundreds of new engineers, carpenters, laborers, mechanics, administrators, clerks, photographers, and journalists. Soon there would be tens of thousands. Gorgas, an army surgeon, knew this human wave was flesh food for a ravenous predator that thrived in Panama's tropical environs: Stegomyia fasciata. Similar in many ways to hundreds of other mosquito species, the Stegomyia mosquito had one major difference: it was the carrier of deadly yellow fever.

Over generations, the native population of Panama had built up immunity to the disease. But the new arrivals, many from the U.S. and Europe, were not immune. It was only a matter of time before they became infected. Then, with lightning speed, a full-blown epidemic would break out. Thousands would die. Gorgas could see the calamity approaching. His anxiety was magnified by the knowledge that the looming catastrophe was avoidable. He knew how to fight and win the war against the Stegomyia and its lethal yellow fever parasite. He had proven this in Havana, Cuba. But Major General George W. Davis, the first governor of the Canal Zone, and other members of the seven-man Isthmian Canal Commission did not take seriously Gorgas' "theory" that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever and malaria. Commissioner John Walker said the notion of mosquito transmission was "balderdash."

Dr. Gorgas gave the commission members a tour of the Canal Zone and explained as explicitly as he could the potential dire consequences of the approaching pestilence and what must be done to avoid a disastrous epidemic. However, Governor Davis and the commissioners were not about to squander money to chase mosquitoes. They budgeted only $50,000 for Gorgas' sanitation department, a small fraction of what he needed for an aggressive campaign against the deadly contagion. Gorgas would not let up. He repeatedly cabled the commissioners, who had returned to the United States. For his efforts, he received only silence--or rebukes. He was reminded by return cable that cables were expensive and that any further communication should be by surface mail.

In November 1904, the first cases of yellow fever appeared. Panic spread quickly and soon a mass exodus was underway. American workers fled Panama in droves, jumping aboard any available ship headed toward the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had witnessed the devastation of yellow fever in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, was not about to allow the disease to derail the canal project. Realizing that Governor Davis and the Canal Commission members were the problem, Roosevelt relieved Davis. Gorgas was named acting governor and given a free hand (and generous funding) to attack the crisis. When the new governor, Charles E. Magoon, arrived, he gave Gorgas full backing. Gorgas would need it because Canal Zone workers and natives resisted his mosquito control program as stubbornly as had the commission.

The Cuba Experience

Perhaps Dr. Gorgas' patient perseverance, in the face of widespread resistance, was bolstered by the fact that he had once been a skeptic himself. During the Spanish-American War (1898), only 968 soldiers died from combat, compared to 5,000 who perished from disease, many of those from yellow fever. …