“If you try to build this canal there
will not be trees enough on the isthmus to make crosses for the graves
of your laborers.” — French resident in Panama to Ferdinand
de Lesseps, 1880s
|The tropical diseases that
killed thousands of workers during the French years threatened to derail
the American effort before it even got started. Many people thought yellow
fever and malaria were caused and spread by bad air or filth. By the end
of the 19th century, however, physicians Ronald Ross of England, Carlos
Juan Finlay of Cuba, and Walter Reed of the United States had proved the
diseases were transmitted by mosquitoes.
American tropical disease expert William Gorgas used their research and his own experience to rid the isthmus of yellow fever in 18 months. Similar measures to control the mosquito that causes malaria cut those deaths as well. In 1905, with disease in check, construction began with renewed vigor.
Stegomyia fasciata (Aëdes aegypti), commonly known as a house mosquito, was a carrier of yellow fever. It deposited its eggs in the standing water often found around residences. Anopheles, which carried malaria, bred in swamps, along the edges of rivers and streams, and even in puddles.
Although quinine does not cure malaria, it does stop the disease’s progress by interfering with the growth and reproduction of malaria-causing parasites in red blood cells. It also relieves fever and other symptoms. When malaria patients stop taking quinine, however, they relapse. Natural quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree.
No equivalent to quinine existed for yellow fever sufferers. However, those who survived enjoyed lifetime immunity from the disease.
Although medical records, especially those from the French period, are incomplete, as many as 20,000 workers died during the French and U.S. construction periods. The dramatic dip during the 1890s reflects the near standstill in work by the French, not a medical breakthrough. After 1904, deaths increased with the arrival of new, non-immune workers.
Working in well-equipped hospitals, Isthmian Canal Commission physicians treated diseases and injuries that were typical at home as well as those more common to the tropics and the construction industry.
Deadly tropical fevers received the most notoriety, but diseases of all types attacked workers, particularly those from the Caribbean who had no natural immunity to some of them. Injuries and deaths from dynamite blasts, drowning,
railroad accidents, and other trauma occurred throughout the entire project.