William Crawford Gorgas

William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920), surgeon general of the U.S. Army, conquered yellow fever in the Panama Canal Zone, thus making the building of the canal possible.

William C. Gorgas was born Oct. 3, 1854, near Mobile, Ala., the son of Josiah Gorgas, later a Confederate general and vice-chancellor of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn. Young Gorgas's early education was irregular because of the Civil War, but in 1875 he took a bachelor of arts degree from the University of the South.

Desiring a military career, Gorgas exhausted every possible means of getting an appointment to West Point, then decided to enter the Army by way of a medical degree. After graduating from the Bellevue Medical College in New York City and serving an internship at the Bellevue Hospital, he was appointed to the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in June 1880. Then followed tours of duty at various Texas posts, in North Dakota, and nearly 10 years at Ft. Barrancas, Fla., a notorious yellow fever area to which Gorgas was assigned because he had previously had the disease and was therefore immune. In 1883 he married Marie Cook Doughty.

After the occupation of Havana, Cuba, by American troops in 1898, Gorgas took charge of a yellow fever camp at Siboney. Later that year he became chief sanitary officer of Havana. Acting on information furnished by the Yellow Fever Commission of U.S. Army physician Walter Reed that a particular strain of mosquito was the carrier of yellow fever, Gorgas deprived the mosquito of breeding places, quickly destroying the carrier and ridding the city of yellow fever. This work brought him an international reputation.

In 1904, when work commenced on the Panama Canal, Gorgas went to the Canal Zone to take charge of sanitation. Although it was known that yellow fever had been largely responsible for the French failure to build the canal, Gorgas encountered continuing opposition to his antimosquito measures from an economy-minded administration. He persevered, however, and, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, finally succeeded in making the cities of Panama and Colón models of sanitation.

As a result of his work in the Canal Zone, Gorgas came to be generally regarded as the world's foremost sanitary expert. A number of foreign governments and international commissions sought his aid, and his book Sanitation in Panama (1915) quickly became a classic in the public health field. In 1914 he was appointed surgeon general of the Army, and he served in that capacity until his retirement 4 years later. He died in London on July 3, 1920, and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.


Further Reading on William Crawford Gorgas

Marie D. Gorgas and Burton J. Hendrick, William Crawford Gorgas: His Life and Work (1924), is an intimate biography from material furnished by Gorgas's wife. See also John M. Gibson, Physician to the World: The Life of General William C. Gorgas (1950).