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William C. Gorgas, Chief Sanitary Officer in Panama

William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920) was appointed Chief Sanitary Officer of the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1904. Armed with recent knowledge about the important role of mosquitoes as vectors of yellow fever and malaria, he implemented mosquito-control measures and effectively eradicated yellow fever from Havana for the first time in 150 years. Despite repeated efforts to remove him because of his “outlandish” expenditures, Gorgas persisted and was able to eradicate yellow fever and control malaria in Panama. He was elected president of the American Medical Association and was named Surgeon General. King George V came to his hospital room in London to award him an honorary knighthood. Gorgas died a few months later on July 3, 1920. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

William C. Gorgas portrait. Wellcome Images.

Ancon Hospital medical staff, 1906. Samuel Taylor Darling Memorial Library, Canal Zone.

William C. Gorgas, portrait in oil by Alexander R. James, presented to the War Department by the Southern Society of Washington, on March 3, 1921. National Library of Medicine.

Bronze medallion honoring Gorgas issued by The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University, 1969. Medallion sculpted by Abram Belskie (1907-1988) who was born in Scotland but resided in New York most of his professional career. Belskie made more than 130 medals and medallions between 1952 and 1984. Abram Belskie Museum, Closter, New Jersey.

Canal Zone 1-cent Gorgas stamp.

Before coming to Panama, Gorgas was Chief Sanitary Officer in Havana, Cuba (1901-1904). His effort to eradicate yellow fever by thoroughly cleaning the city of 200,000 inhabitants was unsuccessful. In 1900, Walter Reed and members of the Yellow Fever Board proved the hypothesis proposed in1881 by Cuban physician Carlos J. Finlay, that the mosquito was the vector of yellow fever. Gorgas applied this new knowledge by attacking mosquitoes and within eight months Havana was free from yellow fever.

Carlos J. Finlay, portrait. National Library of Medicine.

Major Walter Reed and contract surgeons Jesse Lazear, Arístides Agramonte and James Carroll formed the Fourth Yellow Fever Board. National Library of Medicine.

Conquerors of yellow fever. Painting by Dean Cornwell, Philip S. Hench Yellow Fever Collection, University of Virginia.

Gorgas was not alone in his crusade to make Panama a healthy place to live and work in. In addition to Samuel T. Darling, at least three other colleagues figured prominently in his sanitation campaign.

Henry R. Carter (1852-1925), U.S. Marine Hospital Service (U.S. Public Health Service), was Chief Quarantine Officer and Director of Hospitals, Isthmian Canal Commission. Carter was credited for originating the modern quarantine system and for discovering the extrinsic incubation period of yellow fever. After his retirement due to ill health (myocardial degeneration), Carter wrote a definitive history of yellow fever.

Portrait of Henry R. Carter. National Library of Medicine.

Louis A. La Garde (1849-1920), Major, Medical Corps, U.S. Army, was Superintendent of Ancon Hospital. During the Spanish-American War, La Garde organized a field hospital and transported it to Cuba on the U.S.S. Saratoga and received all the wounded from the battle of Santiago. He also established a special hospital for yellow fever patients. He was sent to Panama in 1904 and reorganized and equipped the old French hospital into a modern institution and was head of the surgical service. He left Panama in September 1905 for the Philippines, where he took command of the base hospital and headed its surgical service. He returned to Washington to command the Army Medical School and retired from active service in 1913.

Portrait of Louis A. La Garde. National Library of Medicine.

Joseph A. LePrince (1875-1956), was Chief Sanitary Inspector (Sanitary Engineer) of the Isthmian Canal Commission. LePrince volunteered in 1901 to go to Havana, where he used his engineering skills in the fight against yellow fever under Gorgas. He joined Gorgas in Panama in 1904 and was credited for many innovations in the successful fight against disease-carrying mosquitoes. LePrince retired form the U.S. Public Health Service in 1939.

Portrait of Joseph LePrince. National Library of Medicine.

Last modified: Mar 05, 2020