Skip to main content

Sanitation of Panama

The sanitation program implemented by William C. Gorgas in Panama consisted of public health measures such as potable water, sewage disposal and paved streets. Health care was delivered by sick camps, base hospitals and two main hospitals at each terminal of the Canal Zone. Most importantly, Gorgas directed an ambitious attack against mosquitoes by eliminating breeding sites using drainage ditches, spraying oil, fumigation and burning sulphur and pyrethrum, in addition to installing wire mesh in all buildings and dwellings. A quarantine program kept ships from known endemic sites of yellow fever, cholera and plague under strict surveillance. The “outlandish” expenditures for sanitation were criticized by the Isthmian Canal Commission members, who did not believe in the mosquito theory, and had requested his resignation and replacement by a man “with more practical views”. Thanks to his patience and persistence, as well as his support from T. R. Roosevelt, Gorgas was able to carry out his sanitation program to fruition in Panama.

Fumigation Brigade ready to attack mosquitoes. Library of Congress.

Worker oiling standing water with a knapsack on his shoulder, 1905. Library of Congress.

Oil-dispensing truck treating a larger breeding site, 1905. Library of Congress.

Gorgas divided the area into twenty districts, each with a sick camp or a base hospital, and two large hospitals: one at each terminal site of the proposed canal. The larger of the two hospitals, Ancon Hospital, consisted of about 90 wooden, pavilion-style buildings distributed over a mile along a winding road on the southeastern slope of Ancon hill, with a capacity of up to 800 patients. The hospital was capable of providing any medical and surgical service comparable to any other hospital in the U.S.

Map showing distribution of sick camps/sick hospitals in the Canal Zone. Gorgas, Sanitation in Panama, 1915.

Nurses outside Ancon Hospital. AMEDD, Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.

Ancon Hospital staff. Samuel Taylor Darling Memorial Library, Canal Zone.

Last modified: Mar 05, 2020