The First Mountain To Be Removed
Artist: William Allen Rogers
In this cartoon, Uncle Sam points to the culprit impeding progress on the
Panama Canal; it is Yellow Jack, a nickname for yellow fever. The
mask over Yellow Jack's fierce, skeletal visage marks it as a bandit who
steals human lives (note the vultures circling and perched on his sombrero).
The depiction of yellow fever as a mountain emphasizes that it is a
monumental problem that must be eradicated before construction on the
Panama Canal (including blasting through real mountains) can be effective.
Beside Uncle Sam stands President Theodore Roosevelt, arms akimbo, who
is ready for battle in his Rough-Rider outfit.
In 1881, a French company under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps
began excavation for an interoceanic canal across the Isthmus of Panama. In
1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty gave the United States sole rights to
construct and operate a canal in Panama. The next year, Lessepsís former
company sold its holdings to the United States. Yellow fever, malaria, and
other tropical diseases plagued both the French and American efforts to
construct the Panama Canal, but it was yellow fever that provoked the most
Yellow fever made its first appearance at the project during the summer
1881 when the French company started digging. The company's records list
60 deaths during the first year (almost certainly an underestimate), but de
Lesseps denied that there was an epidemic in Panama. In fact, more
probably died then, as they certainly over the entire period of construction,
from malaria than from yellow fever. There was no immunity to malaria, but
because it was a constant presence in the region, it was known and
Yellow fever did leave its survivors with immunity, yet it occurred in
epidemics that swept through areas with swift vengeance. Many of the
Panamanian natives had childhood immunity to yellow fever, so it was the
French, Americans, and other outsiders who suffered most from "the white
man's disease." The symptoms of yellow fever were also worse than those of
malaria. With both diseases, victims had insatiable thirst, chills, and high
fever. Yellow-fever sufferers, however, endured severe aches in their heads,
backs, and legs; became extremely restless; turned yellow, especially in the
face and eyes; and vomited dark blood. People often refused to touch
victims for fear of contracting yellow fever, and quickly buried the dead.
When the French began their Panama Canal project, there was no cure for
yellow fever, although quinine was taken as a malaria preventative. The
predominant theory among scientists and the public was that both diseases
were caused by poisonous vapors, such as from swamps or marshes (malaria
is Italian for "bad air"). Sewage, rotting animal carcasses, the patient's
clothing, and other filth were considered as contagions for the airborne
disease. People tried to avoid the wind and night air when yellow fever was
In 1848, however, Dr. Josiah Nott of Alabama had published a paper in the
New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in which he denied that vapor
causation theory and hypothesized that insects, perhaps mosquitoes,
transported yellow fever and malaria. In the 1850s, Dr. Lewis Beauperthuy
in Venzuela and Dr. Albert Freeman Africanus King in Washington, D.C.,
came to similar conclusions. The medical community and the public, though,
ignored their conjectures.
In 1881, the year the Panama Canal project commenced, Dr. Carlos Juan
Finley, a physician in Havana, Cuba, often the site of yellow fever epidemics,
not only observed that mosquitoes spread yellow fever, but correctly
identified the exact species (out of 800) that was the carrier. It was a
wonderful example of scientific imagination, but Dr. Finley could never
produce evidence to support his theory. Thus, he, too, was ignored.
Meanwhile, in the French hospital in Panama, bed legs set in pans of water
keep ants from climbing on the patients provided a breeding ground for
mosquitoes. There were also no screens on windows or doors, and open
pots of water abounded in homes (for drinking) and in gardens (to keep pests
Finally, in 1897-1898, Dr. Ronald Ross, an English physician in India,
that a certain type of mosquito absorbed a malaria-causing parasite into its
salivary gland by biting a malaria victim. The parasite multiplied within the
mosquito, which then spread the disease by biting healthy people. Dr. Ross
was awarded the Nobel Prize for his momentous discovery.
In 1901, a yellow fever epidemic erupted in Havana, which was under the
control of American occupation forces following the Spanish-American War
of 1898. Dr. Walter Reed, who headed the American medical corps in
Cuba, agreed that the mosquito was also to blame for spreading yellow
fever. Although initially skeptical, Dr. William Gorgas convinced Reed, his
superior, to test the theory by eradicating the mosquito from Havana.
Amazingly, in eight months, Gorgas and his men were able to do just that,
halting the yellow fever epidemic. Playwright Sidney Howard dramatized
their heroism in his play, Yellow Jack (which was later made into a movie).
When the United States took over the Panama Canal project in 1904, chief
engineer John Walker of the Isthmian Canal Commission called the mosquito
theory "balderdash," despite Ross's Nobel Prize work on malaria and
Gorgas's success against yellow fever in Havana. The rest of the commission
agreed. The health officer appointed to the project, though, was Dr. Gorgas,
who planned to attack the problem of yellow fever first. In Panama,
however, he faced a large geographic area, limited supplies, and resistance
from his commanding officers who thought chasing mosquitoes was a waste of
time, money, and manpower.
Beginning in November 1904, cases of yellow fever began to appear, and
January 1905, headlines in American newspapers blazed "Yellow Jack in
Panama!" Panic was spreading in Panama as 200 of the staff resigned over a
two-week span, and three-quarters of all Americans left before the situation
was under control. President Roosevelt, who had witnessed cases of yellow
fever while fighting in the Spanish-American War, realized the Canal
Commission members were a major obstacle, so forced their resignation.
Roosevelt named John Stevens as the new chief engineer.
With the president's blessing, Stevens cut red tape and allocated all the
resources necessary to end the yellow fever epidemic. Whereas Gorgas's
budget had previously been $50,000, the physician now got $90,000 just for
screen-wire. Gorgas and his workers put screens on windows and doors,
fumigated houses, isolated victims, oiled cisterns weekly, and replaced
standing water with running water. Not surprisingly, the task took longer than
in Havana, but incidents of yellow fever dropped dramatically by the fall of
1905, and within a year-and-a-half, the Panama Canal Zone was rid of the
Robert C. Kennedy