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Message of the President on the Panama Canal
Report to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17,1906

Preliminary Work being Done

The wisdom of the canal management has been shown in nothing more clearly than in the way in which the foundations of the work have been laid.  To have yielded to the natural impatience of ill-informed outsiders and begun all kinds of experiments in work prior to a thorough sanitation of the Isthmus, and to a fairly satisfactory working out of the problem of getting and keeping a sufficient labor supply, would have been disastrous.  The various preliminary measures had to be taken first; and these could not be taken so as to allow us to begin the real work of construction prior to January 1 of the present year.   It then became necessary to have the type of the canal decided and the only delay has been the necessary delay until the 29th of June, the date when the Congress definitely and wisely settled that we should have an 85-feet level canal.  Immediately after that the work began in hard earnest and has been continued with increasing vigor ever since; and it will continue so to progress in the future.  when the contracts are let the conditions will be such as to insure a constantly increasing amount of performance.

Successful Sanitation

The first great problem to be solved, upon the solution of which the success of the rest of the work depended, was the problem of sanitation.  This was from the outset under the direction of Dr. W. C. Gorgas, who is to be made a full member of the Commission, if the law as to the composition of the Commission remains unchanged.  It must be remembered that his work was not mere sanitation as the term is understood in our ordinary municipal work.  Throughout the Zone and in the two cities of Panama and Colon, in addition to the sanitation work proper, he has had to do all the work that the Marine-Hospital Service does as regards the Nation, that the health department officers do in the various States and cities, an that Colonel Waring did in New York when he cleaned its streets.  The results have been astounding.  The Isthmus had been a by-work for deadly unhealthfulness.  Now, after two years of our occupation the conditions as regards sickness and the death rate compare favorably with reasonably healthy localities in the United States.  Especial care has been devoted to minimizing the risk due to the presence of those species of mosquitoes which have been found to propagate malarial and yellow fevers.  In all the settlements, the little temporary towns or cities composed of the white and black employees, which grow up here and there in the tropic jungle as the needs of the work dictate, the utmost care is exercised to keep the conditions healthy.  Everywhere are to be seen the drainage ditches which in removing the water have removed the breeding places of the mosquitoes, while the whole jungle is cut away for a considerable space around the habitations, thus destroying the places in which the mosquitoes take shelter.  These drainage ditches and clearings are in evidence in every settlement, and, together with the invariable presence of mosquito screens around the piazzas, and of mosquito doors to the houses, not to speak of the careful fumigation that has gone on in all infected houses, doubtless explain the extraordinary absence of mosquitoes.  As a matter of fact, but a single mosquito, and this not of the dangerous species, was seen by any member of our party during my three days on the Isthmus.  Equal care is taken by the inspectors of the health department to secure cleanliness in the houses and proper hygienic conditions of every kind.  I inspected between twenty and thirty water-closets, both those used by the white employees and those used by the colored laborers.  In almost every case I found the conditions perfect.  In but one case did I find them really bd.  In this case, affecting a settlement of unmarried white employees, I found them very bad indeed, but the buildings were all inherited from the French Company and were being used temporarily while other buildings were in the course of construction; and right near the defective water-closet a new and excellent closet with a good sewer pipe was in process of construction and nearly finished.  Nevertheless this did not excuse the fact that the bad condition had been allowed to pevail.  Temporary accommodations, even if only such as soldiers use when camped in the field, would have been provided.  Orders to this effect were issued.   I was struck, however, by the fact that in this instance, as in almost every other where a complaint was made which proved to have any justification whatever, it appeared that steps had already been taken to remedy the evil complained of, and that the trouble was mainly due to the extreme difficulty, and often impossibility, of providing in every place for the constant increase in the numbers of employees.  Generally the provision is made in advance, but it is not possible that this should always be the case; when it is not there ensues a period of time during which the conditions are unsatisfactory, until a remedy can be provided; but I ever found a case where the remedy was not being provided as speedily as possible.

Hospitals and their Treatment

I inspected the large hospitals at Ancon and Colon, which are excellent examples of what tropical hospitals should be.  I also inspected the receiving hospitals in various settlements.  I went through a number of the wards in which the colored men are treated, a number of those in which the white men are treated -- Americans and Spaniards.   Both white en and black men are treated exactly alike, and their treatment is as good as that which  could be obtained in our first-class hospitals at home.  All the patients that I saw, with one or two exceptions,were laborers or other employees on the canal works and railways, most of  them being colored men of the ordure laborer stamp.  Not only are the men carefully cared for whenever they apply for care, but so far as practicable a watch is kept to see that if they need it they are sent to the hospitals, whether they desire to go or not.  From no responsible source did any complaint come to me as to the management of the hospital service, although occasionally a very ignorant West India negro when he is first brought into the hospital becomes frightened by the ordinary hospital routine.

Health Showing Remarkably Good

Just at present the health showing on the Isthmus is remarkably good -- so much better than in most sections of the United States that I do not believe that it can possibly continue at quite its present average.  Thus, early in the present year a band of several hundred Spaniards were brought to the Isthmus as laborers, and additions to their number have been made from time to time; yet since their arrival in February last but one of those Spaniards thus brought over to work on the canal has died of disease, and he of typhoid fever.  Two others were killed, one in a railroad accident, and one by a dynamite explosion.  There has been for the last six months a well-nigh steady decline in the death rate for the population of the Zone, this being largely due to the decrease in deaths from pneumonia, which has been the most fatal disease on the Isthmus.   In October there were ninety-nine deaths of every kind among the employees of the Isthmus.  There were then on the rolls 5,500 whites, seven-eighths of them being Americans.  Of these whites but two died of disease, and as it happened neither man was an American.  Of the 6,000 Americans, including some 1,200 women and children, not a single death has occurred in the past three months, whereas in an average city in the United States the number of deaths for a similar number of people in that time would have been about thirty from disease.  This very remarkable showing can not of course permanently obtain, but it certainly goes to prove that if good care is taken the Isthmus is not a particularly unhealthy place.  In October, of the 19,000 negroes on the roll 86 died from disease; pneumonia being the most destructive disease, and malarial fever coming second.  The difficulty of exercising a thorough supervision over the colored laborers is of course greater than is the case along the whites, and they are also less competent to take care of themselves, which accounts for the fact that their death rate is so much higher than that of the whites, in spite of the fact that they have been used to similar climatic conditions.  Even among the colored employees it will be seen that the death rate is not high.

Diminution of Mosquitoes

In Panama and Colon the death rate has also been greatly reduced, this being directly due to the vigorous work of the special brigade of employees who have been inspecting houses where the stegomyia mosquito is to be found, and destroying its larvae and breeding places, and doing similar work in exterminating the malarial mosquitoes -- in short in performing all kinds of hygienic labor.  A little over a year ago all kinds of mosquitoes, including the two fatal species, were numerous about the Culebra cut.  In this cut during last October every room of every house was carefully examined, and only two mosquitoes,neither of them of the two fatal species, were found.  Unfaltering energy in inspection and in disinfecting and in the work of draining and of clearing brush are responsible for the change.  The Surgeon-General reported to me that the hygienic conditions on the Isthmus were about as good as, for instance, those in the Norfolk Navy-Yard.

Corozal, some four miles from La Boca, was formerly one of the most unsanitary places on the Isthmus, probably the most unsanitary.  There was a marsh with a pond in the middle.   Doctor Gorgas had both the marsh and pond drained and the brush cleared off, so that now, when I went over the ground, it appeared like a smooth meadow intersected y drainage ditches.  The breeding places and sheltering spots of the dangerous mosquitoes had been completely destroyed.  The result is that Corozal for the last six months (like La Boca), which formerly also had a very unsanitary record), shows one of the best sick rates in the Zone, having less than 1 per cent a week admitted to the hospital.  At Corozal there is a big hotel filled with employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission, some of them with their wives and families.  Yet this healthy and attractive spot was stigmatized as a "hog wallow" by one of the least scrupulous and most foolish of the professional scandalmongers who from time to time have written about the Commission's work.


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February 12, 1999

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