Between 1904 and 1914, the United States built the Panama Canal, an ambitious engineering project undertaken in the shadow of the French failure two decades earlier. The French experience taught American administrators several lessons, none more potent than the need to mitigate the destructiveness of tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. The U.S. responded with a sanitary program, informed by several critical mosquito vector discoveries at the end of the 19th century, that seemed to successfully meet that threat;indeed, many Americans claimed to have solved one of the vexing medical - and imperial - problems of the era: the settling of temperate peoples in tropical environments. The Americans had, to use the words of a contemporary commentator, "pulled the teeth of the tropics." "Pulling the Teeth of the Tropics" will be an environmental and medical history of American public health efforts during era of canal construction in Panama. With three years of funding support from an NLM Grant for Scholarly Works in Biomedicine and Health, the investigator will research and write the first book-length historical study to recount this important campaign. The resulting manuscript will examine American perceptions of the tropics, how those perceptions informed U.S. sanitary and other administrative practices, and how those practices in turn resulted in the creation of a Canal Zone landscape that mixed marked public health improvements with racial and medical inequalities. The manuscript will also show that the environmental changes wrought by canal construction actually created many of the conditions conducive to malaria and yellow fever transmission, and it will trace the diverse legacies of this pivotal moment in the history of U.S. public health administration. "Pulling the Teeth of the Tropics" will be based on extensive historical research in archival and published primary sources, and it will be informed by current state-of-the-art understandings of disease etiology and public health practice. It will combine the methodologies and approaches of medical and environmental history to produce a book that will be of interest to public health historians and practitioners alike.

Public Health Relevance

Pulling the Teeth of the Tropics will be relevant to public health in two critical ways. First, it will provide the only thorough, book-length treatment of one of the most formative and influential moments in the history of U.S. public health administration: U.S. government efforts to control disease and provide for the health of U.S. citizens and contract workers during the construction of the Panama Canal (1904-1914). Second, as an interpretative history that assesses both the benefits and the inequities produced by a massive public health intervention in the developing world, it will provide a model for thinking critically about, and applying the lessons of history to, similar governmental and non- governmental interventions today.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Health Sciences Publication Support Awards (NLM) (G13)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZLM1-ZH-P (01))
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Vanbiervliet, Alan
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University of Colorado at Boulder
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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