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Theory v. Empiricism: from Bigotry to Progress

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It seems fitting that in the year we should be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, we are being driven to hysteria and panic by fear of disease, as our politicians prefer to profit through ignorance rather than be guided by science. Considered a dubious project at the time, Theodore Roosevelt perceived a canal linking the two great oceans as the lynchpin of America's 'Manifest Destiny', but what would be hailed as a triumph of engineering might never have happened had a young medical officer not asked to be transferred to the pestilent isthmus.

Along with smallpox, dysentery and malaria, yellow fever had stalked the ports of Europe and America since the murderous expansion of the African Slave Trade. Before Darwin’s Descent of Man provided them with the tainted morsel of legitimacy, slavery's defenders, finding their 'peculiar institution' under assault, used the public's fear of these infectious diseases to boost their racist theories. From Liverpool to New Orleans, citizens dreaded the arrival of summer when they would be left cowering indoors or burying the dead. Yellow fever offered 'proof' that the white man was not meant to labor in the tropics. Rebutting those 'foreign writers' who claimed 'there are no internal or physical differences in mankind', Samuel Cartwright, a New Orleans physician, explained that the difference in mortality rates was 'derived from the free colored persons, who have no masters to take care of them . . . and from the white people who make slaves of themselves by performing drudgery work in the sun.' 

Panama-Mosquito-ManIgnorant of the fact that the yearly scourge was the work of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a finicky little pest with a taste for fresh blood, those who agreed with Dr. Cartwright similarly asserted such lack of 'good sense' was why the French had suffered such staggering casualties in their doomed attempt to dig a canal through Panama in the 1880's. The evidence of over 20,000 dead, six black to every one white, did nothing to dispel the consensus that the climate and 'toxic vapors' were far more deadly to the 'Caucasian' than tiny mosquitoes. Luckily, William Gorgas, that young medical officer, had been Havana's Chief Sanitary Officer after the Spanish American war, or Roosevelt's 'Great Undertaking' might have met with a similar fate. Having seen Havana made healthy first hand by attacking the pests where they bred, Gorgas  proposed an aggressive strategy for Panama. And luckily for the tens of thousands drawn to work on the Panama Canal, the President ignored those who scoffed at Gorgas's 'ridiculous' claim that for a million dollars (over $30 million in 2014 currency) the deadly threat could be stopped in its tracks and put his trust in the army scientist.

It took Gorgas and his 4,000 men just over year: city homes were cleaned and fumigated, their doors and windows screened in copper mesh wire; drains were sprayed and cesspools disinfected; exterminators with gallons of oil strapped to their backs sanitized fields, scouting for any trace of standing water and scattering tons of sulphur and pyrethrum powder, going so far as to treat the churches' holy water. By the end the plague that had sent four out five workers to an early grave or a Canal Zone hospital had been defeated. Freed from the stalk of Yellow Jack, if not the canal-work's deadly explosives, the diggers stuck to their task and finished under budget and right on schedule. Roosevelt had his canal and the U.S. Navy had its shortcut to the Pacific – just in time for the start of World War I.

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Guest Sunday, 17 December 2017

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