How Many People Died While Building the Panama Canal?

March 13, 2024

By the time France abandoned its attempt to build a sea-level canal in 1888, accidents and illnesses had killed 20,000 workers. The vast majority of those who died hailed from the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica, writes Matthew Parker in his book Panama Fever. The United States began a new effort to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1904. This time, Ferdinand de Lesseps was joined by Theodore Roosevelt, who committed ten years of his presidency to building the canal.

The builders quickly discovered that they faced a task on an unprecedented scale. In addition to the challenges of tropical disease, they had to establish whole new communities, import every nail and supply hundreds of miles of railroad track. They also had to carve a ditch 45 feet deep and at least 300 feet wide through an eight-mile mountainous stretch known as the Culebra Cut, which was the most dangerous part of the canal.

One of the keys to success was public health measures. Gorgas established departments of hygiene and sanitation, and he devoted massive resources to combating diseases that were endemic in the region. He drained swamps, filled wetlands, and fought mosquitoes by spraying areas with oil. He even sprayed the tops of trees with insecticide.

As a result, hospitals in the Canal Zone often resembled battlefields. Many workers were maimed by gruesome injuries that required amputations. As a result, artificial limb makers competed for highly coveted contracts with the Canal builders.


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