Sanitary Conditions as We Found Them In 1904
by Colonel William C. Gorgas

The Toastmaster has just introduced me in a very kindly way.   I think one reason for this kindly introduction was because his conscience reproached him for the way in which he has gotten me into this speech.  Some time ago, a month or more, he notified me that I would be expected to say something on a certain subject at the dinner tonight.  As a modest and diffident man I hesitated about the matter and asked him what I was to say and what the scope of the argument would be.  He replied:  "Oh, something bright and witty and forcible."   [Laughter.]  I was naturally very much taken aback at this, but consented to do my best.  When I had gotten well started in preparing this matter I got a letter from Mr. Baxter asking me for the notes on the great speech that I was to make, and telling me it was to be permanently embalmed in the Year Book for the Association.   This almost finished it.  After I had spent a month in looking up all the bright and witty things I could find in literature and getting them into the speech which I had prepared for tonight, I came here and the Toastmaster assigned to me an entirely different subject.  He tells me it doesn't make any difference, that I can speak equally well on any subject.  I interpret this in one way, possibly he in another. [Laughter.]

But to return to the sanitation of 1904.  Sanitary matters came up even earlier than this date, and in fact even as early as 1902 the Government was considering the matter of sanitation at the point where the canal was to be built.  I was notified by my superiors to go to the Isthmus for the purpose of looking into the matter.  In asking where the canal was to be built, at that time the general opinion seemed to be that it was to be located at Nicaragua.

I then went to Washington and devoted myself to the study of all the literature I could find about Nicaragua.  Matters hung fire for a time and my immediate superior, the Surgeon-General, seemed to get tired of seeing me around with nothing to do and I was therefore sent to the Suez Canal, where I spent a month undergoing trials and hardships in the palace of the President of the Canal as his guest, riding around in his carriage, and sailing in his private yacht over the canal. [Laughter.]   I was then cabled, while undergoing this arduous service, to come back, as canal matters were coming to a head in the States.  I came back but matters did not come to a head just yet.  That was in 1902.  The surgeon-General then suggested that I go to Paris, France, where I was to look up matters contained in the archives of the French Canal in their old records.  So I did so.  I spent two or three months' arduous service as a guest of the French Republic in Paris, and I did not come home of my own accord that time either.  [Laughter.]  Another cablegram came saying that matters were coming to a head, and so I again came back.  That was in the summer of 1903.  After waiting a while the treaty was finally agreed upon, and I was assigned to the duty under the first Commission of drawing up sanitary plans-and by the way, one of those first Commissioners just passed by that window there.  I was one of the party accompanying the first Commission to the Isthmus.  We arrived on the Isthmus in 1904, and that is the subject on which I am to speak tonight-the sanitation at this time.

There really was no sanitation, so that there is not much to be said of it.  After remaining here for a month or more with the first Commission, plans were arranged and we went back and got personnel and supplies and started in.

The first two years of the work, as we all know, were surrounded with many difficulties.  This remark does not apply any more to sanitation than to the rest of the work.  Nobody who was not down here in those days can understand the difficulties to be contended with in an entirely new country with no supplies in getting started and getting things going.  At the end of two years the work was pretty well started and sanitation well under way.  From that time to the present, sanitation, as you all know, has been carried on with fairly successful results, and the general work of the canal has increased at even a greater rate.

In this witty and scintillating speech which I prepared under the first conversation with the Toastmaster, I thought it proper and becoming to refer to some of the earlier officials and their work, particularly those who would have been members of this association if they had lived.  And first I would like to remind you of our first Chairman, Admiral Walker.  All of us here in 1904 were more or less thrown into contact with him; I in particular.  The Admiral was a very able and capable man, but he had a few set ideas in regard to the administration of the Canal which he was determined to carry out.  The principal of these was economy.  Day after day I would go to the Admiral with requisitions for various things needed and we would talk the matter over.  He would always get on the subject:  "Gorgas, there is one thing certain; whether we build that Canal or not we will leave things so fixed that those fellows up on the hill can't find anything in the shape of graft after us."  He would then take my requisition and stick it in a drawer, and there it would remain for an indefinite time.  That was one of his peculiarities.  His great work was the bringing of the purchase of the Canal from the French to a successful issue.  I doubt if the President of the United States could have found anywhere a man to do this work better than the Admiral.  He negotiated the purchase of the Canal at a price of forty million dollars, in which purchase there was not one cent of graft.

Another man who would have been a member of our association, if he had lived, was the supervising Architect, Mr. M. O. Johnson, who occupied a position in 1904 somewhat similar to that of Chief Quartermaster at present.  Those of you who recollect him as a kind and genial good-natured man, always full of good nature and life.   He died of yellow fever early in 1905.

Another man, a most capable and upright officer, who died in the same year of yellow fever, was our Auditor, Mr. West.  He had not been with us as long as Mr. Johnson, but everybody who had been thrown into contact with him respected him in the highest degree.

There is still another man who came later and who died since leaving the service-Jackson Smith. [Prolonged applause.]  Few who have joined the service since can appreciate the work that he did in advancing the interests of the Canal by the organization and perfecting of his department.

But not all the early service on the Canal had a sad tinge; there were many amusing things as well.  One of these I recollect happened in the first year of our coming down here.  In March, 1904, when the Commission came down before the Canal was turned over by the French, we were the guests of the French engineer and treated most hospitably by him, and several entertainments were gotten up for our enjoyment.  One of these pleasant occasions was an invitation by the Chief Engineer to dine with him at his house in Panama.  We were living at Colon at the time, and the party went over to Panama and returned on a special train at 1 o'clock.  I say 1 o'clock; it might have been a minute or so later, {Laughter.]  One of the Commissioners had not gone with us on the plea of sickness.  We will mention him as Mr. Jones.  When the train got back to Colon the Mayor came up to me and taking me to one side said:  "Great God, Dr. Gorgas, the most alarming calamity has happened since you were away.  the Commissioner, Mr. Jones, has gone on a spree.  He has gone down town and whipped three of my best policemen and now he is locked up at the station house and wants to fight the Chief of Police.  He took off his coat in the fight and in the scrimmage of getting arrested his shirt was torn off, his eyes were blackened, and he is in a generally disreputable condition."  Well, I called Admiral Walker to tell him about it.  The Admiral was terribly upset and said: "Well, we must try and keep the matter just as quiet as we can.  We are quite disgraced as it is."  He said he had never heard of this Commissioner taking a drink, that it was a  most extraordinary thing, and that he guessed it must be due to the climate.  He then told me that I was brought with the Commission as the sanitary officer; that I was responsible for the general health of all, and that it was in general my fault that this had occurred.  [Laughter.]  Well, we went to the police station to see about getting Mr. Jones home.

We were taken into the cell and there found Mr. Jones, who proved to be our chief clerk who had given the name of the Commissioner when arrested.   [Laughter.]  Now, while this was one of the amusing occurrences, you must not think that we all got on a jamboree.  As I say, we had many pleasant things and some sad things occur in the early days and since, but as I look back on the whole service the pleasant things very much overbalance the disagreeable ones, and I look forward with feelings of regret to the approach of the completion of the work, and when the time comes for us to separate and go back home, I hope this organization of the Chagres will be the means in after years of bringing us together in the United States from time to time.   [Prolonged applause.]

From:  Society of the Chagres Yearbook, 1912

April 26, 2000

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