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William Crawford Gorgas: Waging War on the Wigglers

5 min

In the summer of 1901, a dedicated American army officer was waging a most unusual war in the Cuban city of Havana. Colonel William Crawford Gorgas had divided the city into various districts, carefully planning for the eradication of the deadly enemy that lurked everywhere. The Americans were armed with an unusual weapon — bottles of kerosene! Some thought the Colonel was crazy. Others believed him to be a genius. The enemy? Colonel Gorgas sought to eradicate dangerous mosquito larvae. Not just any mosquito larva was the target but the specific species of mosquito then known as Stegomyia. Gorgas strongly suspected that this beautifully marked mosquito was the carrier of a deadly virus popularly known as “yellow fever.”

A little more than a century ago, yellow fever was one of the most feared diseases on the planet. The disease seemed to strike without warning, and it affected people in seemingly indiscriminate ways. While a child or an elderly person might be completely unaffected by it, a person in ideal health could be infected and die in a few days or even within a few hours.

The progress of the terrible disease was sudden, sure, and devastating. First, the victim would feel a slight chill. Then, he would be struck by a high, uncontrollable fever. At this point, he either recovered or progressed to the next painful stages involving severe stomach pain and the characteristically yellow skin from liver damage. Finally, bloody vomiting would ensue, followed by an agonizing death.

Epidemics tended to strike in the summer months, seemingly occurring sporadically and suddenly. Although most common in the Caribbean, epidemics broke out throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century as far north as Philadelphia and New York. Sometimes, over half of the population of a town or city would be carried away by death, taking the healthiest and strongest.

Gorgas was not the first to propose that this mysterious, deadly malady was carried by an insect. Other brilliant doctors and scientists had suggested the possibility before him. But Dr. Gorgas was the man who acted resolutely upon this suggestion. He sought to eradicate the epidemic in Havana by killing the chief culprit — the mosquito larvae known as “wigglers.”

William Crawford Gorgas was the son of Confederate General Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Confederate Ordnance Department. His mother, a warm Christian and charming Southern lady, was the daughter of the Governor of Alabama. The Gorgas’s son longed to be an officer like his father, but he was disappointed at his failure to obtain an appointment to West Point. The avenue of becoming a medical doctor and then transferring to service in the U.S. Army Medical Corps was a long and less attractive proposal, but it was the avenue that Gorgas pursued.

Gorgas attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, an institution that his father presided over as president. After studying medicine, Gorgas was commissioned as an officer in the United States Army Medical Corps.

As to the area in which he gained expertise, Dr. William Gorgas had a long-standing, personal battle with yellow fever. He had already experienced a significant victory over the disease by surviving it in one of his early posts as an army doctor at Fort Brown in Texas, near the Mexican border.

In the providence of God, this dangerous brush with death yielded two important results. First, it gave the young doctor a life-long immunity to yellow fever. Second, it put him in close daily contact with a young lady named Marie Doughty, who was the daughter of an army officer at Fort Brown. Marie had also contracted yellow fever, and the two convalescents conversed often during their days of quarantine together. At one point, coffins were prepared for both of them!

By God’s grace, both patients recovered fully. William Crawford Gorgas next married his fellow convalescent, Miss Doughty! She became a loving, faithful wife who would eventually write her husband’s biography.

Dr. Gorgas was transferred to several posts on the frontiers of the United States, such as Fort Randall in the wild prairies of North Dakota, and Fort Barrancas, near the Florida Panhandle city of Pensacola. During those years, the Gorgas family grew as the Lord graciously added children. Doctor Gorgas was a sincere, committed Christian, and he applied the Bible’s truth to all that he studied and practically applied that Biblical truth in his medical practice.

While stationed as Chief Sanitary Officer in Havana during an outbreak of yellow fever, Gorgas found what would become the defining work of his life. Abandoning the old theories, he pursued the new theory that the disease was carried by infected mosquitoes. By eradicating the larvae of the particular mosquito, which prefers domestic areas and breeds in open water containers, he saw amazing success. Just as the eradication of yellow fever required the citizens of Cuba to submit to a thorough search for the deadly larvae, so we as God’s people should be willing to submit our hearts to a thorough search by the Holy Spirit as He transforms us into the image of Christ.

Dr. Gorgas taught the people of Havana that it was not necessarily the obviously filthy piles of garbage that bred death, but even seemingly harmless containers like the water in a flower vase that could hide the insidious larvae. Vase by vase, jar by jar, the mosquitos were eventually exterminated. With their extermination, the epidemic of yellow fever vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

After this signal victory in the “war on the wigglers,” Dr. Gorgas was assigned to the Panama Canal Zone. Previous efforts at building the canal had ended in dismal failure due to outbreaks of yellow fever. Applying the same sanitary measures as he had done in Cuba, Gorgas was able to eliminate the deadly mosquito population in the Canal Zone, thus making the ambitious engineering project possible. He ordered for water vessels to be covered with mosquito netting, drained swampy areas, and sent out inspectors to ensure that citizens did not allow standing water to collect anywhere near or in their dwellings.

The same environmental measures began to be used in the fight against malaria, a disease not so fatal as yellow fever, but more pervasive, debilitating, and widespread throughout the tropics. The difficulty with malaria was that the mosquitos that carried the virus did not breed in domestic water jars but in open swamplands. This different breeding environment that covered a greater amount of stagnant water was much harder to manage. But progress was made in draining swampy grounds near centers of population, as well as screening porches and windows to guard against mosquitos.

By the time of the outbreak of World War I, Dr. Gorgas was a major general serving as Surgeon-General of the United States, the highest post in the Medical Corps. Under his leadership and direction, the corps grew from 2,435 officers and men to over 250,000 medical personnel!

On his way to Africa in 1920 to study the possibility of endemic yellow fever on that continent, Dr. Gorgas suffered a stroke in London. The king of England, George V, visited Gorgas following his stroke and conferred upon the distinguished American doctor the badges of knighthood.

Dr. Gorgas died on July 3, 1920, in London, England. His wife Marie wrote, “that tender, compassionate heart, that had never failed to the appeals or sufferings of others, was at rest.” His funeral was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, after which the body was conveyed in honor to his native land to lie in state before burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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