Medical Success Story

Medical Success Story

In 1900, when Dr. Walter Reed proved that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, he opened the door for a great medical success story.

In the 1800s the French attempt to build the Panama Canal was doomed to failure. Even with the most skilled engineers and plenty of labor at their disposal, the French failed to make much progress because of the terribly unhealthful conditions that existed in the region. The area was described as "one sweltering miasma of death and disease." In just eight years more than 50,000 laborers died of malaria, yellow fever, and the plague. As the saying of the day went, one man died for every crosstie in the Panama railroad.

In May 1904 the United States took over the canal project from the French. The United States surgeon general appointed Dr. William Crawford Gorgas, an American army doctor, to tackle the problem of overwhelming disease in the Canal Zone. Dr. Gorgas had, in 1902, worked on eradicating yellow fever in Havana, Cuba. Within five months the disease, which had been widespread in the city since 1761, was under control.

Having already known from Dr. Reed's work that mosquitoes were the carriers of the dreaded diseases, Gorgas attacked them in every possible way, draining stagnant pools, spraying large areas of water with oil to kill the larvae, clearing undergrowth that sheltered mosquitoes, screening all living quarters, and dosing everybody with quinine.

His methods of combating the disease in infested areas were quite successful, and by the end of 1906 he had wiped out yellow fever and eliminated the plague in the Canal Zone. Malaria was more difficult, because the anopheles mosquito was harder to eradicate. However, by 1913, the area was relatively free of malaria. As a result of the tremendous victory man had won over an insect enemy, the canal was completed in 1914.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth