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Panama as a Pesthole

Reports from early explorers and occasional visitors described Panama as a nidus of pestilence and disease. Incessant rain, heat and humidity, as well as epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases made life difficult if not impossible for unacclimated visitors.

“The most unattractive spot of land in the western hemisphere. It was a stretch of snake-infested, insect-ridden jungle between the Atlantic and Pacific…landscaped with bottomless swamps and mud flats…and a wet season extending from the 4th of July to Christmas, each and every year,” recalled Arthur Richards, an engineer who remained in Panama throughout the period of construction. Personal Papers, Library of Congress.

“Waiting,” a 1904 cartoon by Joseph Keppler, Jr., shows the specter of death sitting with a scythe on its lap, on the construction site of the Panama Canal. Puck Magazine, vol. LV, June 22, 1904. Library of Congress.

Panama City as seen from the bay, watercolor by Sir Clements Robert Markham, 1853. Wellcome Images, London.
Last modified: Mar 05, 2020