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A Global View of Disease: Yellow Fever and the Panama Canal

Module by: Robin Sager. E-mail the author

Summary: Using George Dunham's travel diary and Paul Osterhout's personal papers, this module investigates the connections between yellow fever, Panama, and U.S. international policy.

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A Global View of Disease: Yellow Fever and the Panama Canal

The idea of an interoceanic canal in Central America had captivated the leaders of Britain, the United States, and France since the early nineteenth century. A canal in Central America would allow ships from these world powers to quickly and efficiently transport goods and peoples to Asia and beyond. Despite these incentives, building a canal would prove difficult and costly, in terms of lives lost and money spent. In 1881 Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, representing the French in Panama, began work on his grand canal. Only eight years later de Lesseps was forced to admit defeat due, in great part, to the thousands of lives that were lost throughout the construction process of the still unfinished canal. It has been estimated that 60 percent of the Frenchmen who labored on the canal died in the process (Sánchez 48). Many of these deaths resulted from diseases (yellow fever, malaria, bubonic plague, pneumonia), however this percentage also reflects accidental deaths as well. It would take the intervention of the United States, and a few more years, before a functioning canal was completed in Panama. The United States, in a similar fashion as France, would have to deal with the deadly disease environment of Central America, including the prevalence of yellow fever. The personal letters and medical documents of Paul Osterhout, a visiting U.S. official in Panama, as well as the journal of George Dunham, provide detailed descriptions and human insight into the causes and consequences of yellow fever. These items are physically housed in Rice University’s Woodson Research Center, but are made available online through the ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership (a digital collaboration on the hemispheric Americas).

Figure 1: This image (ca. 1910-1914) shows abandoned machinery from the French attempt to build a canal in Panama.
The French in Panama
french.png

Used in conjunction with a partner module on yellow fever, Environmental History in the Classroom: Yellow Fever as a Case Study, this module describes how educators can incorporate a study of disease and empire within the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) or, as the AP guidelines state, “The Emergence of America as a World Power” lectures in introductory U.S. history and literature courses. In particular, a class lesson could focus on how the U.S. became involved in Panama, which led to the creation of the canal. This involvement was not accidental, but the continuation of an international policy that highlighted the acquisition of territories, including Puerto Rico. Of course, these expansionist policies were not without financial costs and risks. Along those lines, students could be asked to look at items such as Osterhout’s Bocas del Toro (Panama) Yellow Fever Victim List and ask what was the financial impact of these lost lives? At one point in 1906, the casualty figures became so great that President Theodore Roosevelt visited Panama to quell worker discontent and build confidence in the project (Missal 48). For a solid overview of the Panama project see Alexander Missal’s Seaway to the Future (2008).

Figure 2: A photo (ca. 1906) showing men laboring on the canal. Many of these individuals were probably West Indian laborers who migrated for the work opportunity.
Construction
men.png

It is often hard for students to grasp the actual size, and therefore the impact, of an undertaking such as the Canal. The Canal Zone was ten miles wide (five on each side) and stretched fifty miles long (Greene 38). The dirt dredged from the Zone was enough to create a series of pyramids alongside the Canal. For additional media sources, it is recommended that educators search the Library of Congress’s catalog of images and/or utilize videos documenting the construction, such as A&E’s ‘Panama Canal’(1994).

Figure 3: A map showing the route of the completed canal. A series of "locks" are used to control the water level within the canal.
Map of the Panama Canal
map.png

These media sources will convey the fact that the Canal was situated in prime mosquito territory amid miles of swamp and jungle. To keep the project functioning on schedule, Roosevelt brought in William C. Gorgas as the chief sanitary officer in charge of combating yellow fever and other diseases. One exercise would involve educators asking students how they would combat the illness if they were in Gorgas’s position. Osterhout’s letters provide some indications of how the medical community responded to the challenge. To begin with, they attempted to document all aspects of the disease. This is evident via Osterhout’s Clinical Charts for individuals such as Elias Nelson, Charles Raymond, Vaughan Philpott, and W. B. Dunn. These charts could be printed out and passed around the room for student inspection or projected on the board and discussed. Gorgas and his men also attempted to remove all the mosquitoes from the Panama Canal Zone and, to a great extent, they succeeded. To this end they drained swamps, attached screens to windows, and quarantined infected patients. Some companies wanted to take more extreme measures. One example of this is a letter received by Osterhout from a manager of a Panamanian Fruit Company, requesting permission to use kerosene to “exterminate the mosquitoe.” In the end, Gorgas’s methods were successful in reducing yellow fever outbreaks in the region, leading to the widespread belief that civilization and science had conquered a wild land.

Figure 4: This is an excerpt from a letter dating March 7, 1906, in which Schermerhorn, the manager of the Panamanian United Fruit Company, requests permission to use kerosene to battle the mosquitoes in his region.
S. G. Schermerhorn to Paul D. Osterhout
kerosene.png

However, yellow fever was not simply a disease found in ‘uncultivated’ swamplands. In actuality, the fever had been impacting the U.S. and other American locales for quite some time. For example, George Dunham, in his travel journal, documents Brazil’s struggle with yellow fever in the 1850s. Dunham tried to nurse numerous individuals through the disease, even stating in reference to his friend, “I shall take care of him for as long as I can for I have been with him all the time so far and now I think there is no use in trying to run away from it I shall be as careful as I can of myself and try to escape” (Wed. May 25, 1853). Dunham repeatedly emphasized his feelings of helplessness in the face of the fever, a sentiment echoed in other infected locales across the globe. An activity could ask students to analyze the impact of the fever across the globe, using the ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership, including the following modules: Environmental History in the Classroom: Yellow Fever as a Case Study, The Experience of the Foreign in 19th-Century U.S. Travel Literature, and National and Imperial Power in 19th-Century U.S. Travel Fiction.

Bibliography

Greene, Julie. The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.

Hays, J. N. Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2005.

Missal, Alexander. Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Oldstone, Michael. Viruses, Plagues, and History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Parker, Matthew. Panama Fever: The Battle to Build the Canal. London: Hutchinson, 2007.

Sánchez, Peter M. Panama Lost? U.S. Hegemony, Democracy, and the Canal. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

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