William Gorgas, 1854–1920
William Crawford Gorgas dedicated most of his professional life to the control of yellow fever, a mosquito-borne disease that he first encountered in New Orleans in the late 1860s. After attending college at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and medical school at Bellevue Medical College in New York City, Gorgas joined the Army Medical Corps in 1880 and served for almost two decades in various military posts in the US, including Fort Brown, Texas, where Gorgas treated patients with yellow fever and where he, himself, fell victim to the disease.
Yellow Fever and Malaria in Cuba
After the end of the Spanish-American War (1898), Gorgas became chief sanitary officer in disease-ridden Havana, where his task was to eradicate yellow fever and malaria.
Gorgas capitalized on the Walter Reed Commission’s (1900) confirmation of Carlos Finlay’s hypothesis (1882) that mosquitoes of the genus Aedes transmitted yellow fever in human populations. Gorgas’s sanitary workers used various methods to eliminate or reduce mosquito infestation: they drained or covered with kerosene all sources of standing water to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs and larvae from developing, fumigated areas infested with adult mosquitoes, and isolated disease-stricken patients with screening and netting. Gorgas used similar methods to contain malaria (a disease transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito), which kills or recurs periodically and weakens its victims.
The Eleventh International Sanitary Conference (1903)
Before beginning his service as chief sanitary officer in Panama in 1904, Gorgas served on the United States delegation at the eleventh International Sanitary Conference (1903) in Paris. Because of recent proof by the Walter Reed Commission that yellow fever was a mosquito-borne disease, Gorgas’s presence stimulated discussion of the global control and prevention of yellow fever. In a French translation of his exposé on yellow fever (originally written in English), Gorgas emphasized abolishing international quarantine regulations with regard to yellow fever, since mosquitoes were known to transmit this disease among people. He added that preventive measures against the breeding of anopheline mosquitoes would ultimately cause malaria to disappear in afflicted parts of the world.
Eradicating Yellow Fever and Containing Malaria in Panama
In 1904, Gorgas’s success in Cuba led him to the fledgling Republic of Panama, where he implemented sanitation measures against yellow fever and malaria—diseases that had killed or disabled workers building the Panama Canal during the 1880s under French leadership. Estimating that yellow fever and malaria had killed at least one third of the French labor force, Gorgas realized that mosquito-borne endemic diseases posed the biggest threat to American success. Gorgas decided that a broader repertoire of sanitation methods against mosquitoes was necessary in Panama compared with Cuba. His tactics proved effective: by 1906, he had eradicated yellow fever and managed to contain malaria during the 10-year period of construction of the Panama Canalthat ended in 1914.
Gorgas as Global Advisor on Yellow Fever
Gorgas devoted the rest of his life to the goal of eliminating yellow fever in different parts of the world. In this pursuit, he died in London in 1920 on his way to West Africa.
Selected Contagion Resources
This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Additional materials may be found by browsing the topic “William Gorgas, 1854–1920” and by searching the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.
Colonialism and International Medicine