The “Back Punch”

The spinal tap as requirement for processing their retirement papers became known in Panama by the Black Westindians as "The Back Punch."

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.

15 responses to “The “Back Punch”



  2. Pingback: Top 10 Hispanic American Heritage Books For Kids

  3. My father was born in Panama. We know not what island grandfather came from but, we, his grand and great grandchildren would like to find out. Is there or was there a national registry?


  4. The problem with these types of human rights violations is that the descendants who have repoted this to us in glaring details were mere children when they would hear the bitter complaints from the elders who were being victimized, especially the men ready to receive their pensions. Some of these witnesses tell us that they heard of men who died as a consequence of the procedure known as the “Back Punch” but, of course the medical and labor statistics for such events are all shrouded in mystery or very hard to come by if they do exist. The records are kept by the U.S. State Department as we have pointed out here, and it would take a formal official investigation to clarify the extent of these violations. We understand that this affected a large number of West Indian men, so that there was a great amount of fear within the West Indian community of Panama since many of them had family- large families- living on the Canal Zone. They feared for their family’s well being and their “privileges” being taken away from them like being able to shop at the Silver Commissary and the children being able to attend Zone schools or even keeping their jobs.


  5. Thank u for all, this iformation,
    GOD give many blessing,


  6. It’s really hard to believe mankind, but something I know for sure, ignorance is the enemy, and when people are ignorant they get afraid of what they don’t know. Besides, they made us believe what they want! We are the same race mankind, but in different colors, some of us are strong, some are weak,but our ancestors helped to build America in all ways, so I’m proud of all we did,are and become..
    My family, came from Jamaica ‘n Barbados, and my granny use to tell us many histories about her family and relatives, and how they miss them land, and how many lies they was told to come to Panama. Unfortunaly my granny past away last September, and with her part of my history


    • “ignorance is the enemy…” No truer words were spoken. This is one of the main reasons we have put up this web site as well as The Silver People Chronicle, to cure the ignorance. The West Indian Panamanians like many other “endangered” people of losing their intangible heritage cannot afford to be ignorant any longer.

      Thank you, Yvonne, for telling us about your grandmother.


  7. Renaldo Manuel Ricketts

    Everywhere they go they take this barbaric sick psychosis with them, I sometimes wonder are they innately racist. What possesses people who are labeled humans to be so inhumane, is it the lack of melanin or their Neanderthal genes protruding through their ignorance in society? We need to have humanity check centers on this planet, Houston we have a problem!


    • Renaldo,

      Yes, all of the above, and they have infected us with it also.

      Go to Jesus Christ and He will wash you clean.



      • Yes, I know what you are talking about. Ten generation down my family is suffering. Jesus was the “Sacrifical Lamb” Thanks, to those barbaric slave owners who wanted more wealth


  8. This was presecution to those hard working people. If they don’t like us why they wanted the fluid from our people.
    These people or their family should be compensated. The Japanese were compensated for Pearl Harbour. The West Indian should be compensated for the slavery.

    Many nations profited and is still profiting from the Canal.


  9. I have never heard of this. This is terrible and disgraceful!

    Made into a serum? I got really grouchy reading this! 🙂

    No I am not surprised just repulsed by what my people have done to others in the world…



    • Kyle,

      I would go further and say it was a “tribute” to the meanness of the American administrators of the Canal who did this sort of thing with great frequency to a group of people who bent over backwards to prove their loyalty, affinity for hard work and trustworthiness.



      • N.Crawford

        My father was born in Panama. his parents came from Barbados and Montserrat. I have heard my father speak on some of the injustices that was perpetrated on the people by the US. but this is a new one, and it is plain disgusting. out of the people that went through this, you are stating that there is no one who can speak on what happened to the workers after the fact?


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