by Lydia M. Reid
Of the many practices carried out by the Panama Canal Zone administration in regards to the men of the Silver Roll probably one of the most questionable and the least investigated is the notorious “Back Punch.” It consisted of requiring the black Westindian men approaching retirement age- or 25 year service- to sign a release or consent form as, basically, a condition to processing their retirement applications from the Panama Canal Zone and submit to a dangerous spinal tap. It was one of these back-door types of policies that in no way was supposed to be “required” of the black workers but that in order for them to receive their long awaited pension, this medical procedure had to be “agreed to.”
The Back Punch, as it became known throughout the Westindian community of working people, was the process of drawing spinal fluid from these tough, hard working and loyal laborers who, despite institutional obstacles, Jim Crow hurdles thrown in their path, low pay and rigorous working conditions, were still strong in their sixties and seventies and many even in good health and vigor.
Apparently, the Canal Zone authorities were perplexed by the extraordinary vigor and virility of the Westindian men who in no way seemed to exhibit any problems with their vitality and sexual health. They wanted to probe the secret of this mysterious source of strength and somehow tap it for “scientific” reasons. That they turned a profit from uncovering this secret along the way never figured into any plans to improve the living conditions of the black Canal Zone population which made up the vast majority.
It turns out that the samples from these potentially risky and painful spinal taps were promptly sent from Panama to The Tuskegee Institute where they presumably underwent screening until they were re-sent to a laboratory in Switzerland- which one is still a mystery.
Right about this time Tuskegee was also the site of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the longest lasting experiment testing the effects of untreated Syphilis on uninformed and non-consensual subjects which lasted from 1932 to 1972. By “non-consensual” in the case of the Westindian workers on the Pan Canal we refer to the implication that the workers were really not in agreement with this “requirement” but that if they wanted to receive their long awaited retirement pension they would have to submit.
The aftermath of these experiments is now common knowledge but the revelations point to the kind of “medical apartheid,” a term coined by author Harriet Washington in her revealing book “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” that was part and parcel of the Jim Crow system that prevailed in the Panama Canal Zone.
Since it was kept “under wraps,” we have yet to discover the exact dates this experiment was initiated and terminated but we have good reason to believe that the target population was the group of black workers nearing retirement during the late 30’s and 40’s.
In Switzerland the spinal fluid was processed into a high-priced serum to be sold on the international market to any man who could pay for this remedy for whatever sexual incapacity problem he might have. We are quite certain that the proceeds from this nefarious trade never trickled back to the Westindian laborers that unwittingly donated their life’s essence.
We have gathered from our sources that the “Back Punch” spinal taps were administered by Gorgas Hospital but that some “private” hospitals and clinics may have been involved as well. Again, exactly when these spinal taps were terminated is unknown at present but we are continuing our investigations.
These kinds of practices should not come as a surprise, however, in light of the historical fact that the Panama Canal Zone Administration used this institutional arm twisting with great frequency on the Black West Indian workers. We recall clearly the Panama Tribune front page article entitled:
“’No Strike Pledge’ or Get No Pay” which stated that “All P.C. (Panama Canal) and Railroad employees will be required to sign affidavits that they will not engage in strike against the United States government. – The third deficiency appropriation bill approved by President Truman.”
This was published in The Panama Tribune, Sunday, July 28, 1946 issue and it pointed to the P.C. Administration’s habitual use of intimidation and institutional bullying tactics to achieve their desired ends- total submission to unjust policies on the part of Black workers on the Canal Zone.
Knowing how important the retirement pension must have been to this large group of Black Westindian employees, it isn’t surprising that many, if not most, would sign a release permitting the good doctors at Gorgas Hospital to administer such an extreme medical procedure without the existence of a medical necessity.