Reiseliteratur weltweit

Geschichten rund um den Globus

1912 - Willis J. Abbot
The Panama Canal – War on the Mosquitos

The seal of the Canal Zone shows a galleon under full sail passing between the towering banks of the Culebra Cut, with the motto, "The land divided; the world united". Sometimes as I trudged about the streets of Colon or Panama, or over the hills and through the jungle in the Zone, I have thought a more significant coat-of-arms might be made up of a garbage can rampant and a gigantic mosquito mordant - for verily by the collection and careful covering of filth and the slaughter of the pestilential mosquito all the work done on the Zone has been made possible. As for the motto how would this do- "A clean country and a salubrious strait "?
   It is the universal opinion of those familiar with the Canal work that if we had approached the task with the lack of sanitary knowledge from which the French suffered we should have failed as they did. No evil known to man inspires such dread as yellow fever. Leprosy, in the individual, does indeed, although well-informed people know that it is not readily communicated and never becomes epidemic. Cholera did strike the heart of man with cold dread, but more than one generation has passed since cholera was an evil to be reckoned with in civilized countries. Yellow fever is now to be classed with it as an epidemic disease, the spread of which can be absolutely and unerringly controlled.
   The demonstrated fact that yellow fever is transmitted only by the bite of a stegomyia mosquito which has already bitten, and been infected by, a human being sick of the fever has become one of the commonplaces of sanitary science. Yet that knowledge dates back comparatively few years, and was not available to mankind at the time the French began their struggle with tropical nature. Over the honor of first discovering the fact of the malignant part played by the mosquito there has been some conflict, but credit is generally given to Dr. Donald Ross, a Scotchman in the Indian Civil Service. His investigations however were greatly extended and practical effect given to them by surgeons in the United States Army engaged in the work of eliminating pestilence from Havana. To Majors Walter Reed, Jesse W. Lazear and Carroll the chief credit is due for testing, proving and applying the theory in Havana. Lazear bravely gave up his life to the experiment, baring his arm to the bite of a mosquito, and dying afterward of yellow fever in terrible agony.
   The fact of this earlier application of the mosquito theory does not in the slightest degree detract from the great honor due to Col. W. C. Gorgas for his work in changing the Isthmus of Panama from a pest-hole into a spot as fit for human habitation as any spot on the globe. Unfortunately, as the impending success of the Canal enterprise became apparent, rivalry for the prime honor grew up between the followers of the two chief figures, Col. Goethals and Col. Gorgas. That either of these gentlemen shared in this feeling is not asserted, but their friends divided the Isthmus into two hostile camps. Rivalry of this sort was unfortunate and needless. In the words of Admiral Schley after the battle of Santiago: "There was glory enough for all". But the result was to decry and to depreciate the work of Col. Gorgas in making the Isthmus habitable. As a matter of fact no historian will for one moment hesitate to state that only by that work was it made possible to dig the Canal at all. Col. Goethals himself in his moments of deepest doubt as to the size of the appropriations for sanitation purposes would hardly question that statement. That some other man than Gorgas might have done the work with the experience of the French and the discovery of the malignant quality of the mosquito to guide him is undoubtedly true. That some other man than Goethals might have dug the Canal with the experience of two earlier engineers, as well as of the French to serve as warnings, is equally true. But these two finished the work and to each pertains the glory for his part.
   Col. Gorgas first visited the Isthmus in 1904. In a little pamphlet which I have before me he then described simply the essence of the problem he had to meet. He found camped on a hill, perfectly drained and supplied with good water, 450 marines - who of course were men of exceptionally good physique, robust and vigorous. Yet in four months 170 out of the 450 were infected with malaria, and Col. Gorgas said, " if these men were our laborers, working daily in Culebra Cut, exposed to the sun and weather, many of these cases would be severe in type and at the end of the year we would be approaching the mortality of the French". The cause for the infection was apparent. Though the marines' camp was clean and sanitary there was at the foot of the hill, on which it was perched, a village of 400 or 500 Jamaica negroes. Examination of the people showed that all suffered from chronic malaria. The marine strolling in the village would be bitten by a mosquito - the anopheles which is partial to malaria - which had already bitten an infected negro. The result was the spread of the infection among the marines. As Col. Gorcyas put it, "The condition is very much the same as if these four or five hundred natives had the smallpox and our marines had never been vaccinated". To correct this condition he proposed, "to take this village, put it under a systematic scheme of inspection, whereby we will be able to control all water barrels and deposits of water, so that no mosquitoes will be allowed to breed, look after its street cleaning and disposal of night soil, etc., so as to get it in good sanitary condition, then have the population examined and recorded, so that we will have on a card a short history of each individual and keep track of them in this way. Those suffering from malaria will be put under treatment, and watched as long as the malarial parasite is found in the blood. I hope, in this way, to decrease to the smallest limit the number of anopheles, the malarial-bearing mosquito, and, at the same time, to gradually eliminate the human being as a source of infection, so that at the end of a year it will be entirely safe for an unacclimated man to live in this village".
   Being appointed Chief Sanitary Officer Col. Gorgas put this plan into effect not only in that village but in every part of the Canal Zone, particular attention being given to the cities of Panama and Colon. In these cities the visitor will be impressed with the comparative cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks and the covering of all garbage receptacles. No other Central American city shows so cleanly a front. Screening, however, is little in evidence. How great the mortality had been under the French it is impossible to tell. Their statistics related almost wholly to deaths in their hospitals and very largely to white patients. Men who died out on the line, natives who worked a day or two and went back to their villages to die were left unrecorded. In the hospitals it was recorded that between 1881 and 1889, 5618 employees died. The contractors were charged a dollar a day for every man sent to the hospitals, so it may be conjectured that not all were sent who should have been. Col. Gorgas estimates the average death rate at about 240 per 1000 annually. The American general death rate. began with a maximum of 49.94 per 1000 sinking to 21.18, at or about which point it has remained for several years. Among employees alone our death rate was 7.50 per 1000. The French with an average force of 10,200 men employed, lost in nine years 22,189 men. We with an average force of 33,000 lost less than 4,000 in about an equal period.
   When Col. Gorgas came to the Isthmus the two towns Panama and Colon were well fitted to be breeding places for pestilence. Neither had sewers nor any drainage system. The streets of Panama were paved after a fashion with cobblestones and lined with gutters through which the liquid refuse of the town trickled slowly or stood still to fester and grow putrescent under the glowing rays of the tropic sun. Colon had no pavement whatsoever. Neither town had waterworks and the people gathered and stored rainwater in cisterns and pottery jars which afforded fine breeding places for the mosquito. As a matter of fact, the whole Isthmus, not the towns alone, furnishes plenty of homes for the mosquito. With a rainy season lasting throughout eight months in the year much of the soil is waterlogged. The stagnant back waters of small streams; pools left by the rains; the footprints of cows and other animals filled up with rainwater quickly breed the wrigglers that ultimately become mosquitoes. Mr. A. H. Jennings, the entomologist of the Commission, has identified 125 varieties of the mosquito, of which, however, the anopheles and the stegomyia are the ones peculiarly obnoxious to man. The others are merely the common or summer resort variety of mosquito with a fondness for ankles and the back of one's hand, which can be observed any time on Long Island or in New Jersey without the expense of a trip to Panama. A careful study of literary authorities indicates to me that at this point in the description of the mosquito plague on the Isthmus it is proper to indulge in humorous reflections upon the fact that the bite of the female only is dangerous. But, given the fact, the humorous applications seem so obvious that the reader may be trusted to draw them for himself -it would be idle to say "herself ", for the women will not see anything humorous about it at all.
   The fight then against disease on the Isthmus resolved itself largely into a war of extermination upon the two noxious varieties of mosquitoes. It involved first a cleaning up, paving and draining of the two towns. Curiously enough bad smells are not necessarily unhygienic, but they betoken the existence of matter that breeds disease germs, and flies and other insects distribute those germs where they will do the most harm. Colon and Panama therefore were paved and provided with sewage systems, while somewhat stringent ordinances checked the pleasant Panama practice of emptying all slops from the front gallery into the street. It is fair to the Panamanians to note that in the end they will pay for the vigorous cleaning and refurbishing of their towns by the Americans. Our sanitary forces did the work and did it well, by virtue of the clause in the treaty which grants the United States authority to prosecute such work in the two cities and collect from the householder its cost by means of water and sewage rates.
   This work was completed in 1908 and the final report of the Division of Municipal Engineering which conducted it showed that nearly $6,000,000 had been expended, of which about $2,250,000 was for pavements, sewers and waterworks in the two cities, and about $3,500,000 for work in the Canal Zone. Nearly a million more was subsequently expended in the two towns.
   The first thing to do with the towns was to fumigate them. The Panamanians did not like this. Neither would we or any other people for that matter, for the process of fumigating necessarily interrupts the routine of life, invades domestic privacy, inevitably causes some loss by the discoloring of fabrics, interrupts trade in the case of stores and is in general an infernal nuisance. That much any people will say against wholesale fumigation. But to the Panamanians it was peculiarly offensive because they were immune from yellow fever anyway, and to some extent from malaria as well, so to their minds the whole thing was an imposition by which the Americans alone would profit. If the gringoes weren't able to live in Panama without smoking people out of house and home, they had better stay away was the generally expressed public opinion of Panama.
   Here the peculiar personality of Col. Gorgas came into play. Had that gentleman not been a great health officer he would have made a notable diplomat, particularly in these new days when tact and charm of manner are considered more essential to an American diplomat than dollars. He went among the people of the two towns, argued, jollied and cajoled them until a work which it was thought might have to be accomplished at the point of the bayonet was finished with but little friction. The bayonet was always in the background, however, for the treaty gives the United States unqualified authority to enforce its sanitary ordinances in the cities of Colon and Panama. We can send a regiment if necessary to compel a man to keep his yard clean -which is perhaps more than we could do in some benighted towns of our own United States.
   The tone of the man in the street toward these American innovations is partly surly, partly jocular. In Panama he will show you a very considerable section of the town which is not yet fully rebuilt and insist that the fire which started it was caused by the "fool fumigators ". There is some difference of opinion as to the origin of this blaze, and the matter of damages is, as I write, in the hands of arbitrators, but the native opinion is solidly against the fumigating torch bearers. On the subject of the extermination of mosquitoes the native is always humorous. He will describe to you Col. Gorgas's trained bloodhounds and Old Sleuths tracking the criminal stegomyia to his lair; the corps of bearers of machetes and chloroform who follow to put an end to the malevolent mosquito's days; the scientist with the high-powered microscope who examines the remains and, if he finds the deceased carried germs, the wide search made for individuals whom he may have bitten that they may be segregated and put under proper treatment.
   In reality there is a certain humor in this scientific bug hunting. You are at afternoon tea with a hostess in one of the charming tropical houses which the Commission supplies to its workers. The eyes of your hostess suddenly become fixed in a terrified gaze.
   "Goodness gracious she exclaims, "Look there!" "What? Where"? you cry, bounding from your seat in excitement. Perhaps a blast has just boomed on the circumambient air and you have visions of a fifty-pound rock about to fly through the drawing-room window. Life on the Zone abounds in such incidents.
   "There"! dramatically. "That mosquito"!
   "I'll swat it", you cry valorously, remembering the slogan of "Swat the Fly" which breaks forth recurrently in our newspapers every spring, though they are quite calm and unperturbed about the places which breed flies faster than they can be swatted.
   "Goodness, no. I must telephone the department".
Speechless with amazement you wonder if the police or fire department is to be called out to cope with this mosquito. In due time there appears an official equipped with an electric flash-light, a phial and a small bottle of chloroform. The malefactor -no, the suspect, for the anopheles malefactor does no evil despite his sinister name- is mercifully chloroformed and deposited in the phial for a later post mortem. With his flash-light the inspector examines all the dark places of the house to seek for possible accomplices, and having learned that nobody has been bitten takes himself off.
   It does seem a ridiculous amount of fuss about a mosquito, doesn't it? But since that sort of thing has been done on the Zone death carts no longer make their dismal rounds for the night's quota of the dead, and the ravages of malaria are no longer so general or so deadly as they were.
   Nowadays there are no cases of yellow fever developing on the Zone, but in the earlier days when one did occur the sanitary officials set out to find the cause of infection. When the French seek to detect a criminal they follow the maxim "Cherchez la femme " (Look f or the woman). When pursuing the yellow-fever germ to its source the Panama inspectors look for the stegomyia mosquito that bit the victim - which is a little reminiscent of hunting for a needle in a haystack.
   A drunken man picked up on the street in Panama was taken to the hospital and there died of yellow fever. He was a stranger but his hotel was looked up and proved to be a native house occupied only by immunes, so that he could not have been infected there. Nobody seemed to care particularly about the deceased, who was buried as speedily as possible, but the Sanitary Department did care about the source of his malady. Looking up his haunts it was discovered that he was much seen in company with an Italian. Thereupon all the Italians in town were interrogated; one declared he had seen the dead man in company with the man who tended bar at the theater. This worthy citizen was sought out and was discovered hiding away in a secluded lodging sick with yellow fever. Whereupon the theater was promptly fumigated as the center of infection.
   Clearing up and keeping clean the two centers of population was, however, the least of the work of sanitation. The whole Isthmus was a breeding place for the mosquitoes. Obviously every foot of it could not be drained clear of pools and rivulets, but the preventive campaign of the sanitation men covered scores of square miles adjacent to villages and the Canal bed, and was marvelously effective in reducing the number of mosquitoes. Away from the towns the campaign was chiefly against the malarial mosquito -the anophelinae. The yellow fever mosquito, the stegomyia, is a town-bred insect coming from cisterns, water pitchers, tin cans, fountains in the parks, water-filled pans used to keep ants from the legs of furniture and the like. It is even said to breed in the holy-water fonts of the multitudinous churches of Panama, and the sanitary officials secured the cooperation of the church authorities in having those receptacles kept fresh. The malarial mosquito however breeds in streams, marshes and pools and will travel sometimes a mile and a half from his birth-place looking for trouble.
   As you ride in a train across the Isthmus you will often see far from any human habitation a blackened barrel on a board crossing some little brook a few inches wide. If you have time to look carefully you will see that the edges of the gully through which the brook runs have been swept clear of grass by scythe or fire or both, and that the banks of the rivulet are blackened as though by a tar-brush while the water itself is covered by a black and greasy film.
   This is one of the outposts of the army of health. Of them there are several hundred, perhaps thousands, scattered through the Zone. The barrel is filled with a certain fluid combination of oil and divers chemicals called larvacide. Day and night with monotonous regularity it falls drop by drop into the rivulet, spreads over its surface and is deposited on the pebbles on the banks. The mosquito larvae below must come to the surface to breathe. There they meet with the noxious fluid and at the first breath are slain. Automatically this one barrel makes that stream a charnel house for mosquito larvae. But up and down throughout the land go men with cans of the oil on their backs and sprinklers in their hands seeking for pools and stagnant puddles which they spray with the larvacide. So between the war on the larva at its breeding point and the system of screening off all residences, offices and eating places the malarial infection has been greatly reduced. It has not been eradicated by any manner of means. The Panama cocktail (quinine) is still served with meals. In one year 2307.66 pounds of the drug were served out. But if not wholly obliterated the ailment has been greatly checked.

Abbot, Willis J.
Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose
London/New York/Toronto 1913

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