William C. Gorgas

William Crawford Gorgas KCMG (October 3, 1854 – July 3, 1920) was a United States Army physician and 22nd Surgeon General of the U.S. Army (1914–1918). He is best known for his work in Florida, Havana and at the Panama Canal in abating the transmission of yellow fever and malaria by controlling the mosquitoes that carry these diseases. At the time, his strategy was greeted with considerable skepticism and opposition to such hygiene measures. However, the measures he put into practice as the head of the Panama Canal Zone Sanitation Commission saved thousands of lives and contributed to the success of the Canal's construction.

William Crawford Gorgas
Gorgas during World War I
Born(1854-10-03)October 3, 1854
Toulminville, Alabama, USA
DiedJuly 3, 1920(1920-07-03) (aged 65)
London, England
Place of burial
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1880–1918
Rank Major General
Commands heldSurgeon General of the US Army
AwardsDistinguished Service Medal
Public Welfare Medal (1914)
RelationsJosiah Gorgas (father)
Amelia Gayle Gorgas (mother)
John Gayle (grandfather)

He was a Georgist and argued that adopting Henry George's popular 'Single Tax' would be a way to bring about sanitary living conditions, especially for the poor.[1]

Early life and education

Born in Toulminville, Alabama, Gorgas was the first of six children of Josiah Gorgas and Amelia Gayle Gorgas. After studying at The University of the South and Bellevue Hospital Medical College, Dr. Gorgas was appointed to the US Army Medical Corps in June 1880.[2]

Military career

He was assigned to three posts—Fort Clark, Fort Duncan, and Fort Brown—in Texas. While at Fort Brown (1882–84), Gorgas survived an episode of yellow fever.[3] He met Marie Cook Doughty, whom he married in 1885.[4]

In 1898, after the end of the Spanish–American War, Gorgas was appointed Chief Sanitary Officer in Havana, where he worked to eradicate yellow fever and malaria.[5] Gorgas capitalized on the momentous work of another Army doctor, Major Walter Reed, who had built much of his work on the insights of Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, to prove the mosquito transmission of yellow fever. He won international fame battling the illness, which was then the scourge of tropical and sub-tropical climates. He worked in Florida, later in Havana, Cuba and finally, in 1904, at the site of the construction of the Panama Canal.[6]

As chief sanitary officer on the canal project, Gorgas implemented far-reaching sanitary programs, including the draining of ponds and swamps, fumigation, use of mosquito netting, and construction of public water systems. These measures were instrumental in permitting the construction of the Panama Canal, as they significantly prevented illness due to yellow fever and malaria (which had also been shown to be transmitted by mosquitoes in 1898) among the thousands of workers involved in the building project.[7]

Gorgas served as president of the American Medical Association in 1909–10. He was appointed as Surgeon General of the Army in 1914. That same year, Gorgas and George Washington Goethals were awarded the inaugural Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

Gorgas retired from the Army in 1918, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 64.[8]

Personal life

He was married to Marie Cook Doughty of Cincinnati.[9]

Death and legacy

  • Gorgas' name features on the Frieze of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Twenty-three names of public health and tropical medicine pioneers were chosen to feature on the School building in Keppel Street when it was constructed in 1926.[12]


Military Awards

Other honors


See also


  1. The Great Adventure, Volume 4. Great Adventure League. 1920. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  2. Davis, Jr., Henry Blaine (1998). Generals in Khaki. Pentland Press, Inc. pp. 151–152. ISBN 1571970886. OCLC 40298151.
  3. Davis, Jr., Henry Blaine (1998). Generals in Khaki. Pentland Press, Inc. pp. 151–152. ISBN 1571970886. OCLC 40298151.
  4. "Mrs. W. C. Gorgas, General's Widow, Dies". New York Times. November 10, 1929. Retrieved 2010-11-13. Mrs. Marie Doughty Gorgas, widow of Major Gen. William Crawford Gorgas, Surgeon General and sanitation expert of the army, died at her home
  5. "William Gorgas, 1854–1920". Harvard University. Retrieved 2008-09-05.
  6. Davis, Jr., Henry Blaine (1998). Generals in Khaki. Pentland Press, Inc. pp. 151–152. ISBN 1571970886. OCLC 40298151.
  7. "Contagion, Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914". Harvard University. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
  8. "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
  9. Davis, Jr., Henry Blaine (1998). Generals in Khaki. Pentland Press, Inc. pp. 151–152. ISBN 1571970886. OCLC 40298151.
  10. "Famous Surgeon is Dead". Associated Press. Retrieved 2010-11-13. Maj. Gen. William C. Gorgas, former Surgeon-General of the United States Army, died at an early hour this morning. Gen. Gorgas's death was very peaceful. He was unconscious most of the time for the last few day
  11. After his death, Gorgas's ongoing work (through the Rockefeller Foundation) in eliminating yellow fever in Mexico and Central America was carried on by retired Brigadier General Theodore C. Lyster.
  12. "Behind the Frieze". Archived from the original on 2017-02-22. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  13. "Valor awards for William Crawford Gorgas". Military Times.
  14. "The University of Alabama".
  15. Atkins, Leah Rawls (2006). 'Developed for the Service of Alabama': The Centennial History of the Alabama Power Company. Birmingham, Alabama: Alabama Power Company.
  16. "Maps – Presidio of San Francisco (U.S. National Park Service)".
  17. "William Crawford Gorgas Papers 1890–1918". National Library of Medicine.
  • From the brochure "150 Year Celebration of the U.S. Marine Hospital/Mobile County Health Department" – December 15, 1993 – Bernard H. Eichold, II M.D., Dr. P.H., Health Officer

Further reading

  • Ashburn, P.M., History of the Medical Department of the U.S. Army, 1929.
  • Gibson, John M., Physician to the World: The Life of General William C. Gorgas, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1950.
  • Gorgas, Marie and Burton J. Hendrick, William Crawford Gorgas: His Life and Work, New York: Doubleday, 1924.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971) The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.
  • Phalen, James M., "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775–1940, Biographical Sketches," Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 88–93.
  • Wilson, Owen (July 1908). "The Conquest Of The Tropics: How Col. Gorgas's Sanitary Work At Panam Has Proved The Possibility of Beautiful Tropical Residence". The World's Work: A History of Our Time. XVI: 10432–10445. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  • Endorsements, Resolutions and other Data in Behalf of the Nomination of Dr. William Crawford Gorgas for Election to the New York Hall of Fame for Great Americans, 2 vols., Birmingham: Gorgas Hall of Fame Committee, 1950.


  • Ireland, M. W., Science, July 16, 1920
  • Martin, F.H., Surg. Gyn. Obst., October 1923
  • Noble, R.E. Am. J. Pub. Health, March 1921
  • Siler, J.F., Am. J. Trop. M., March 1922
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