William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920)
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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.3 (2001) 368-378

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William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920)

Socrates Litsios

Without Gorgas the Panama Canal may never have been constructed.

ONE MORNING IN 1882, William Gorgas, then a medical officer at Fort Brown, an Army Base in Texas, was told that he would be reading the burial service for Miss Doughty that afternoon. Marie Cook Doughty had come down with yellow fever the week before, and having suffered an attack of black vomiting the previous night was not expected to live much longer. Her grave was dug but to the amazement of all she recovered.Two days later, Gorgas himself was stricken, so they convalesced together. Later they would say that their romance began at that moment.They married in 1885. Some 40 years later, after Gorgas' death, his wife would write his biography, upon which much of this essay is based (Gorgas and Hendrick 1924).

Yellow fever also played a role in bringing Gorgas' father, Josiah, together with his mother, Amelia Gayle. Josiah, a West Point graduate and an ordnance specialist, was assigned in 1853 to the command of an arsenal just outside Mobile, Alabama. It was just then that a terrible epidemic of yellow fever broke out in Mobile, causing Amelia to flee the town and seek refuge with friends who lived next door to where Josiah was lodged. Family legend has it that Josiah fell in love with Amelia's voice, which he happened to hear one day before meeting her. After a very brief courtship, they married in December of that same year. Although he [End Page 368] was from Pennsylvania and officially an officer with the Federal Army, when the Civil War broke out in 1861 he chose to remain in the South.

Josiah Gorgas was at once commissioned as brigadier of the Confederate Army and made Chief of Ordnance. William Gorgas, seven years old when the war broke out, was often present when his father met with Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate leaders. That exciting life at such an impressionable age no doubt seeded his desire to follow his father in a military career. When it later proved impossible for him to obtain an appointment to West Point, he chose the medical corps as his way into the Army, even though he had shown no interest in medicine as a young man. In 1876 Gorgas enrolled in the Bellevue Medical College in New York City. He received his degree in June 1879. After spending a year as interne at Bellevue Hospital, he entered the medical department of the U.S. Army, thus realizing his childhood dream.

Fort Brown was one of several military posts in Texas at which Gorgas served. From there his military career took him to Florida, the West, the Dakotas, and the old Indian Territory. He was supplied with medical journals and books and was one of the first American surgeons to practice aseptic surgery. In yellow fever epidemics he served as undertaker, gravedigger, and even clergyman: so great was the fear of contagion that those normally responsible for these services kept their distance. In 1898 he finally realized the kind of responsibility he had hoped to find in the Army when he was appointed chief sanitary officer for Havana. Gorgas' immunity to yellow fever added to his credentials for the job. Havana was considered one of the worst foci of yellow fever in the hemisphere, and some historians claim that one of the major reasons the United States sought to gain control of Cuba was to eliminate this focus.

Prevailing belief had it that yellow fever was carried from one area to another by fomites, i.e., personal belongings or merchandise on which the infection was purportedly carried. Gorgas himself strongly inclined to this theory (Gorgas 1902). However, not everyone was in agreement. William Nott, the physician who attended Gorgas' birth in Mobile, for one, believed that yellow fever was due to tiny insects that floated around in "miasmatic mists" (Humphreys 1992). When he arrived in Havana, Gorgas was...