Malaria and the Panama Canal

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Candace: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.

Katie: Hey, Candace.

Candace: Hey there, Katie. If you are anything like me, you've been pretty upset since the hit series The Real Housewives of New York ended its run, but I've been spending my time keeping up with the Discovery Channel's Monsters Inside Me about parasitical influences on the human body. And you may be wondering why I'm tying these two shows together and it's because today we are going to pay homage to Monsters Inside Me by talking about malaria and how it is connected to the building of the Panama Canal, which was financed by an ancestor of one of my favorite New York Housewives, LuAnn de Lesseps. Do you see this?

Katie: It all comes together.

Candace: It all comes together. So the Panama Canal, as many of you know, is steeped in history and challenge and lots and lots of money and lost lives. And it's a fascinating story about business deals gone wrong and disease.

Katie: Our article on "How the Panama Canal Works", by our own Sarah Dowdey, really did help me with the research for this one. But basically, the idea behind the Panama Canal is connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and making it easier so ships don't have to go around South America's Cape Horn and instead can just go straight through.

Candace: Because that is a pretty dangerous and time consuming and expensive journey. The canal was designed to shave off 8,000 nautical miles between the east and west coasts of the United States. And it seemed like such a simple idea because the Isthmus of Panama was so narrow, but in fact, it took centuries between when the idea was initially conceived and when the canal came to fruition.

Katie: So we are going to go back to 1534, which is when the Spanish started looking around and trying to decide where would be the best way to do this. And there were two routes that were actually considered, one through Panama and the other one through Nicaragua, all the way up to the 20th Century. And the French chose Panama because of the Panamanian Railway.

Candace: And the French were led by a brilliant financier named Ferdinand de Lesseps. And he had had a lot of success working with the Suez Canal and so he approached the Panamanian Canal with the same gusto. He thought, "I can easily do this. I don't even have to install a complicated canal system. This one doesn't need any locks. It's going to be a sea level canal. We'll get through this in no time." So a couple of things were on de Lesseps side, one of which was steam technology, which was going to make the task a lot more manageable. But something that was not on his side was his own stubborn nature. He thought that he could build the Panama Canal much in the same way as the Suez Canal; however, he was not accounting for Panama's geography and its distinct characteristics, like the mountains and jungle and, invoking parasites here, mosquitoes. Those were a huge problem. Katie: And that's because mosquitoes carry a protozoan parasite that causes malaria. And they also carry yellow fever, which plagued the people building the canal for years. An estimated 22,000 people died from illnesses like malaria and yellow fever during the building of the canal.

Candace: So needless to say, that really did hold up progress. And eventually, de Lesseps relented and planned to incorporate locks into the canal once he realized that he couldn't burst through the mountains. He was going to have to find some way to hoist the ships through. So he finally hires Gustave Eiffel. And so he hires the great mastermind behind the Eiffel Tower to design a type of canal that did incorporate locks.

Katie: But -

Candace: But unfortunately, by this time, he had wasted more than eight years and an obscene amount of money.

Katie: So the hero behind the Suez Canal simply could not make the Panama Canal happen.

Candace: And this actually turned into a pretty sad case for his family because the canal that he had begun around 1881 didn't get built until 1914, not by him, not even by his country. And he was actually convicted in the French court system of mismanagement and he and his son, Charles, were ordered to pay up and to go to prison. However, because de Lesseps was so old at the time, his son served his prison sentence for him. So for awhile it seemed that between all the deaths due to parasitical infections and the money trouble and the seeming impossibility of breaking through the land that the Panama Canal was doomed never to happen. Fortunately, another country stepped in then.

Katie: And that's when the U.S. took over when a 1902 Congress bought the failed company's assets. And the catch was that we were going to form a treaty with Colombia, who controlled Panama at the time. And Colombia wasn't particularly interested in this catch that we had. We supported Panamanian independence and too bad Colombia.

Candace: Yeah, that seems a little underhanded. There were many -

Katie: It is.

Candace: Yeah. There were many U.S. senators at the time who thought that it was dirty and they didn't want to be involved with it. However, many Panamanians today would probably beg to differ.

Katie: And the treaty was passed, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, where Panama signed over their rights and didn't actually have a Spanish translation of the rights they were signing over. So again, some dirty dealing!

Candace: Yeah, it seems like we've seen these kinds of dirty dealings before in other eras of history, but that aside, moving forward. So the United States by now has paid about $40 million for the company's assets and $10 million in goodwill money toward Panama. However, there is still this raging debate, as there was in the era of de Lesseps canal building, as to whether the United States should build a sea level canal or a lock-based canal. And finally, Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Roughrider himself, steps up and says, "Here's the word. It's going to be lock-based." And that was that.

Katie: And with the sea level canal, basically what you do is smash through the terrain to make it what you want it to be. So everything is just flat across. But unfortunately, in a place like Panama, how we were talking about the mountain ranges and stuff, it is a little more difficult. So they decided on locks, which basically the ship goes into an open lock - there is a good diagram of this in Sarah Dowdey's article on the website if you'd like to see it - and then they close it up and they either raise or lower the water level depending on what the next little stretch of water is like. There are three different locks in the Panama Canal and it starts at the Gatun locks, I'm sorry if I'm not pronouncing that right, which lifts a ship 85 feet. And then the next lock, which is about eight miles later, they lower the ships 30 feet. And then the next one they get returned to sea level.

Candace: So incorporating the lock-based design into the plan for the Panama Canal meant that, despite advancements in steam technology and despite having dynamite on hand, crews were not going to have to burst through the terrain necessarily. They were going to dam a river to create the Gatun Lake and then they were going to send ships over the mountains instead of through them. So it seemed like a pretty logical plan. As these plans are coming together and converging on paper and blueprint, there's a another ugly problem still rearing its head and that's yellow fever in the canal zone. So in steps Colonel William Gorgas and his sanitation campaign that was designed to stamp out all traces of mosquitoes, malaria and yellow fever!

Katie: And you have to realize that at this time, no one knew what caused things like malaria. They thought it was bad air.

Candace: Or bad morals.

Katie: Or bad morals so we're sorry if it's your own fault that you're sick. And it wasn't until the late 1800s that Alfonse Laveran discovered that it was a parasite that caused malaria. And then not until later than that that an army surgeon named Ronald Ross discovered that it had something to do with mosquitoes. It was estimated at the time that one-sixth of the population in just one city in the Panama isthmus suffered from malaria every single year. And it's still a problem today. Some 500 million people come down with malaria every year and it kills at least a million. But they needed an attack plan against malaria. And according to the CDC, they came up with a few different ways of attacking it and one was drainage. So they drained all the pools near villages, which was actually really good because mosquitoes love stagnant water.

Candace: Standing water.

Katie: Yes. It's their favorite thing. They cut brush and grass. They poured oil near ponds to get rid of all the mosquito larvae. They found larvaecide. They gave everyone quinine as a preventative. They put screens everywhere and then they killed as many adult mosquitoes as they could find. They actually hired people to collect and kill them. And the death rate from malaria dropped from 11.59 per 1,000 people in November 1906 to 1.23 per 1,000 people in December 1909. So that is a pretty insanely wonderful change.

Candace: Let's take just a second now to pause and thank our sponsor, If you go to, you can get a free download. And if you are interested in what you've been hearing about the Panama Canal, malaria and yellow fever, you may be interested in this book by Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal.

Katie: Or Panama Fever by Matthew Parker.

Candace: And again, that's a free download of an audio book when you go to Okay, so back to the story and the huge scope of this project. You know, you think about undertaking a project at home. Maybe you are painting your living room and you have to clean the walls and then prime it first and then paint.

Katie: Not that this is happening to you.

Candace: No, not that I'm undergoing renovations, but to think that that sort of preparation takes time before you can undergo your real project and the whole time you have your eyes on the prize, knowing that you're employing people and it's costing you time and money. And to think about the kind of time it takes to get this disease and these parasites under control before you can move in and start working. And the United States is under pressure because of the shady dealings of Colombia and Panama and because the French had lagged so far behind in their efforts, I'm sure that the eyes of the world were on the United States, wondering what exactly they were doing and if they were going to be successful where the French were not. So with the eyes of the world upon them and a lot of pressure, too, they did eventually prevail. And they had the most trouble when they were cutting through the continental divide. They moved 96 million cubic yards of dirt and rock. And finally, on January 7th, 1914, a crane called the Alexander La Valley went through the canal for the first time, the first vessel to pass through. And the grand opening of the canal was delayed for a little while, another eight months. And the celebrations were sobered by the start of World War I. But what a huge achievement! And there were nearly $400 million in costs that weren't recovered until the 1950s, a huge expenditure. And if you've been wondering and feeling a little bit uneasy about the dealings with Panama, you will be happy to know that that situation was rectified, too.

Katie: In 1979, Jimmy Carter signed a treaty saying that for the next 20 years, the U.S. and the Republic of Panama would share control of the Panama Canal. And in 1999, the Republic of Panama got the canal back.

Candace: And so today, the canal is not as young and spritely as it once was, but Panama is in the process of adding a third lane to it and building some larger locks to help non-Panamax ships pass through. And a Panamax ship is one that's sized to fit through the canal. So you see thwarting the nasty, dastardly efforts of mosquitoes paid off in the end for worldwide commerce.

Katie: By the end of 2006, 943,042 vessels had gone through the Panama Canal.

Candace: And Cape Horn cries every day.

Katie: Indeed. And we would like to remind you to check out Monsters Inside Me on the Discovery Channel at 9:00 on Wednesdays.

Candace: And if you want to learn more about Panama, the Panama Canal and the dashing, but ill-fated Ferdinand de Lesseps, you can find all that, plus our "Stuff you Missed in History Class" blog, when you check out the homepage at

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