new ideas take time -- 7/24/15

Today's selection -- from The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. Yellow fever and malaria were the scourges of America's monumental effort in 1904 to build the Panama Canal. Science had only recently established that mosquitos were the culprit in those diseases, but the men in charge of the effort were slow to accept this radical new discovery, and so thousands died needlessly. It should not have been a surprise since new discoveries almost always struggle to gain wide acceptance -- after all, it was five years after the Wright brothers flew their plane before the world accepted the idea that machines could fly:

"Time was the pressing concern [regarding yellow fever in Panama]. For although there were but one or two yellow-fever cases, and none serious, at the moment, that condition would change rapidly as soon as new human material became available for the [the mosquito] Stegomyia fasciata -- and thus the disease -- to feed on. ...

1905 fumigation brigades

"Were conditions on the Isthmus to remain as they were, and were upwards of twenty to thirty thousand men to be brought to Panama, as planned, then, [U.S. physician-in-charge William] Gorgas calculated, the annual death toll from yellow fever alone could run to three or four thousand. ...

"In August Admiral Walker and several of the commission came for an inspection tour and Gorgas again made his case [the the mosquito was the carrier of the disease] as explicit as he knew how. The admiral and his party departed, weeks passed, nothing happened. Gorgas' cabled requests were answered evasively, if at all. Presently he was reminded by return cable that cables were costly and henceforth to use the mails.

"The problem in essence was that Admiral Walker, Governor Davis, and several others on the Isthmian Canal Commission, as well as a very large part of the populace and its political leadership, did not seriously entertain the notion that mosquitoes could be the cause of yellow fever or malaria. To spend time and money chasing after mosquitoes in Panama would be to squander time and money in a most irresponsible fashion.

"That the minds of men in such positions could be so closed in the face of all that had been learned and demonstrated ... may seem inconceivable. In the conventional understanding of history, human advancement is marked by specific momentous steps: on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers fly in a heavier-than-air machine and at once a new age dawns; in a hospital ward outside Havana Dr. Jesse Lazear dies a martyr's death and the baffling horror of yellow jack is at last resolved. But seldom does it happen that way. Ideas too have their period of extrinsic incubation, and particularly if they run contrary to what has always seemed common sense. In the case of the Wright brothers, it was five years after Kitty Hawk before the world accepted the idea that their machine could fly.

"During the long hearings of the Morgan Committee in 1902, ... despite all the concern expressed over disease in Panama, the recounting of the French tragedy, the mosquito theory had not even been discussed. George Morison mentioned it once in passing, but without evoking the slightest interest among the others, who had been content to dwell on miasmatic fumes emanating from the rank isthmian landscape. No reference was made to the breakthroughs achieved, ... nor was anything ever said of Gorgas' demonstrated success at Havana. Yet all the efforts of the Yellow Fever Commission, all of Gorgas' work, had been initiated by the Army, all the resulting reports had been published at government expense.

"In the autumn of 1904, with the situation on the Isthmus unimproved, Gorgas returned to Washington to plead his case. It had been nearly four years since the epochal report of the Yellow Fever Commission. Ross had won the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his discoveries. A scientific congress held in Paris in 1903 had thoroughly reviewed Reed's work and declared that the mosquito transmission of yellow fever was a 'scientifically determined fact.' But to Walker, Davis, and their fellow commissioners, Gorgas was wasting their time.


author:

David McCullough

title:

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

publisher:

Simon & Schuster

date:

Copyright 1977 by David McCullough

pages:

421-422
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