William Crawford Gorgas


Surgeon General, U.S. Army

His application of sanitary measures eliminated yellow fever as a blight on the health of the people of the world and made possible the construction of the Panama Canal

William Crawford Gorgas, doctor and Surgeon General of the United States Army, is known throughout the world as the conqueror of the mosquito and the malaria and yellow fever it transmits. His pioneer efforts in halting an epidemic of yellow fever enabled the United States to complete the Panama Canal after earlier attempts had fallen before the onslaught of the treacherous insect.

Cuban physician Carlos Juan Finlay discovered the role mosquitoes play in transmitting disease; it was Gorgas' task to prevent the insect from playing that role. His first efforts against yellow fever were in Havana, where more than 500 deaths to the disease had been counted in each of the preceding ten years. Gorgas assumed the herculean task of listing, inspecting, and controlling every possible breeding place in the city. Within months the city was clear of yellow fever and it was 18 years before another yellow fever death occurred. In the Canal Zone, Gorgas successfully maintained a zone in which mosquitoes could not exist around the canal workers as they progressed across the narrow Isthmus of Panama.

A lesser man than Gorgas might have failed before the opposition he encountered even after the success at Havana gained world-wide publicity and acclaim. United States officials in the Canal Zone refused to believe in Gorgas. They pigeon-holed his requests for equipment, refused him authority to deal with the people, discredited him to higher authorities and frequently clamored for his dismissal. Only the faith and authority placed in General Gorgas by President Theodore Roosevelt enabled him to complete his task.

Elected 1953

Alabama Hall of Fame, 1968
Robert C. Harding, Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics (Transaction Publishing, 2001).

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Updated; June 28, 2006