Hospitals in the Canal Zone
from Panama and the Canal
by Willis J. Abbot
[Syndicate Publishing Company, New York, 1913]

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Colon Hospital
circa 1903

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Ancon Hospital
circa 1903

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Ancon Hospital
circa 1920

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Taboga Island

Click Pic for Larger Image

Two large hospitals are maintained by the Canal Commission at Colon and at Ancon, together with smaller ones for emergency cases at Culebra and other points along the line.  The two principal hospitals will be kept open after the completion of the Canal, but not of course to their full capacity.

Ancon along has accommodations for more than 1500 patients, and when the army of labor has left the zone there can be no possible demand for so great an infirmary.  Both of these hospitals were inherited from the French, and the one at Colon has been left much in the condition they delivered it in, save for needed repairs and alterations.  Its capacity has not been materially increased.  The Ancon Hospital however has become one of the great institutions of its kind in the world.   The French gave us a few buildings with over 300 patients sheltered in tents.

The Americans developed this place until now more than fifty buildings are ranged along the side of Ancon Hill.  When the French first established the hospital they installed as nurses a number of sisters of St. Vincent with Sister Rouleau as Sister Superior.  The gentle sisters soon died.  The yellow fever carried them off with heartrending rapidity.   Sister Marie however left a monument which will keep her fair fame alive for many years yet to come. 

She was a great lover of plants, and the luxuriance of the tropical foliage was to her a never-ending charm.  To her early efforts is due the beauty of the grounds of the Ancon Hospital, where one looks between stately trunks of the fronded royal  palms past a hillside blazing with  hibiscus, and cooled with the rustling of leaves of feather palms and plantains to where the blue Pacific lies smooth beneath the glowing tropic sun.  Beside the beauty of its surroundings the hospital is eminently practical in its plan.  The many separate buildings permit the segregation of cases, and the most complete and scientific ventilation.

Making the hospital attractive was one of the points insisted upon by Col.  Gorgas.  Some of the doctors think that possibly it has been a wee bit overdone.  Some of the folks along the Zone look on a brief stay spent in the hospital as a peasant interlude in an otherwise monotonous life.  As they have thirty days' sick leave with pay every year they are quite prone to turn to the pleasant slopes of Ancon Hill, with a week at the charming  sanitarium on Toboga Island as a fitting close - a sort of cafe parfait to top off the feast.  Surgery even seems to have lost its terrors there.  "Why, they even bring their friends to be operated on", said one of the  surgeons laughingly when talking of the popularity of the hospital among the Zone dwellers.

That garden spot in the Bay of Panama where the French left the sanitarium building we now use is worth a brief description. You go thither in a small steamboat from Balboa or Panama and after about three hours’ steaming a flock of little white boats, each with a single oarsman, puts out from the shore to meet you like a flock of gulls as you drop anchor in a bay of truly Mediterranean hue. To the traveled visitor the scene is irresistibly reminiscent of some little port of Southern Italy, and the reminder is all the more vivid when one gets ashore and finds the narrow ways betwixt the elbowing houses quite Neapolitan for dirt and ill odor. But from the sea one looks upon a towering hill, bare toward its summit, closely covered lower down by mango, wild fig, and ceiba trees, bordered just above the red roofs of the little town by a fringe of the graceful cocoanut palms. Then come the houses, row below row, until they descend to the curing beach where the fishing boats are drawn up out of reach of the tide which rises some 20 feet.

From the bay the village with its red-tiled roofs and yellow-white walls looks substantial, a bit like Villefranche, the port of Nice, but this impression is speedily dispelled when one lands in one of the boats, propelled by the oarsman standing and facing the bow a fashion seldom seen save in Italian waters. For seen near at hand the houses are discovered to be of flimsiest frame construction, save for a few clustering about the little church and sharing with it a general decrepitude and down-at-the-heels air that makes us think they have seen better days. As indeed they have worse days too, for Taboga once shared in the prosperity of the early Spanish rule, and enjoyed the honor of having entertained for a few weeks Sir Henry Morgan, that murderous pirate, whom England made a baronet and a colonial governor by way of reward for his exploits in piracy and rapine. Taboga must have treated the buccaneer well, for not only did the forbear to sack the town, but so deep was the devotion paid by him and his men to certain tuns of excellent wine there discovered that the let a Spanish galleon, deep-laden with gold and silver, slip through their fingers rather than interrupt their drinking bout.

Tradition has it that the galleon was sunk nearby to save it and its cargo from the pirates, and treasure seekers have been hunting it ever since with the luck that ordinarily attends aspirants for dead men’s gold. Just now the wine and wassail of Taboga is limited to about six grog shops, which seems an oversupply for the handful of fishermen who inhabit its tumble-down hovels.  Each bar, too, has its billiard table and one is reminded of Mark Twain’s islands in the South Sea where the people earned an honest living by taking in each other’s washing.  One wonders if the sole industry of the Tobogans is playing billiards. There is indeed little to support the town save fishing, and that, if one may judge from specimens carried through the lands, must be good. some of the boats at anchor or drawn up on the beach attest to someone's prosperity amongst them that go down to the sea in ships. One that I saw rigged with a fore-and-aft sail and a jigger was hewn out of a single log like a river cayuca and had a beam exceeding four feet. Before many of the houses were lines hung with long strips of fish hanging out to dry, for it is a curious property of this atmosphere that despite its humidity it will cure animal tissues, both fish and flesh, quickly and without taint.

Photo of Sanitarium Courtesy of Dino Barkema

Presented by CZBrats
December 3, 1998
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