Hospital History of the Panama Canal

Older view of Gorgas Hospital on file with the Library of Congress photo collection.

By Lydia M. Reid

The history and heritage of the Silver People of Panama would not be complete without a mention of their longstanding relationship with the medical facilities that served (and did not serve) so many of them.  The French and American construction periods of the Panama Canal sought to provide health services to their vibrant population of workers from all over the globe but the Black workers from the West Indian islands were probably the largest segment of people to recur to the services offered by the various medical institutions.

The next few posts will cover the many well known institutions that tended to the sick, injured, dying and mentally ill of the Silver People of the Panama Canal Zone and their relationship to the cities in the Republic of Panama.

Gorgas Hospital

Two hospitals and a convalescent center in Taboga Island were acquired within the properties purchased from the French on May 4, 1904 by the Americans. All were in poor condition, as may be expected, after having seen years of neglect after the French Canal venture shut down in 1889.  The Americans presumably needed to invest large sums of money for refurbishment in keeping with medical practice.

Ancon Hospital in Panama, which succeeded Hospital Central du Panama (1882) under the French Canal administration, was held as a major health center at one time and had a formidable organization, but by 1914 their complex network of some 90 buildings had already been in operation for 30 years. Intercommunication between its complexes of extensions had become increasingly tedious and difficult.

Medical directors, technicians, nurses and manual workers, agreed that a new hospital had to be built to meet the enormous demand rather than continue with frequent renovations. By April 1914, a special committee to “investigate and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Ancon Hospital, was appointed permanently.” The members included Dr. Alfred B. Herrick at that time Ancon Hospital’s Superintendent, Mr. R. E. Wood, Panama Canal Controller, and architect Samuel Hitt.

The original idea of Colonel William C. Gorgas, head of health services of the Panama Canal Zone, was to build a completely new hospital in the same place, with capacity for 1,200 patients, including an insane asylum. The Committee reviewed his proposal and the accompanying budgetary figures and reduced capacity specifications to 800, excluding mental patients for whom a separate hospital was proposed. The Special Committee also added the following recommendations:

1. To conserve the present site for the new construction.

2. To build five groups of buildings for hospital wards, each with kitchen, dining facilities and administration.

3.  To provide an adequate outpatient consultation facility.

In April 1915 the U.S. Congress approved an allocation of $2,000,000 for this project to be extended until April 1919. In addition to the construction of the new structures Ancon Hospital launched a complete renovation of its medical staff and its infrastructure. The hospital became renowned as the best medical facility south of the Rio Grande, with the capacity to offer medical treatment for just about any type of health problem. Among its distinguished staff were some 33 doctors who enjoyed great popularity and prestige, 81 nurses graduated from approved institutions, nurse aides, technical personnel dedicated to janitorial services and the like.

The quality of medical care offered at Ancon Hospital became recognized all over the Canal Zone and the republic, and its fame spread throughout Central and South America, reaching many patients in those locations.

By March 24, 1928, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution that read as follows:

“…in recognition for distinguished service to humanity and as a way of perpetuating the name and memory of General William Crawford Gorgas, the government hospital known as the Ancon Hospital will be known henceforth as Gorgas Hospital.”

Gorgas Hospital continued to offer medical services to those patients with hospital “privileges” from the Zone and was a point of comparison with Panamanian hospitals, among which was the Caja de Seguro Social (Hospital), which, it has been said, started their medical staff with doctors trained from Gorgas Hospital’s facilities.

Gorgas Hospital continued to operate until October 1999, when, with the Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal treaties its administration passed to Panamanian hands.

As far as the West Indian experience goes, Gorgas Hospital conjures up very mixed feelings in that, at all times right up until the 1960’s, its facilities followed the Gold and Silver Roll segregation policies with the enforcement of separate “Silver wards,” including maternity wards.

The access to medical privileges was often denied to many Silver Roll workers even when they continued working on the Zone prompting them to seek medical treatment in private clinics in the cities of Panama and Colon usually run by doctors from the West Indies who had set up practice on the Isthmus.  During peak “downsizing periods” on the Zone, particularly the 1950’s, many Silver Roll workers lost their jobs as well as medical privileges.

Having lost their livelihood they also lost their ability to pay for health care even in public facilities such as Santo Tomas Hospital.  During these periods the strain on these Panamanian health facilities was severely felt by the administrators who, at one time, asked the Panamanian government to allow them to impose a special tax or fee on the ex-Silver Roll workers to defray their skyrocketing costs in their medical facility.  More about Santo Tomas Hospital in a future post.

11 responses to “Hospital History of the Panama Canal

  1. Hi, I have an original ashe tray with Ancon Hospital stamped on it. It mesaures 9″ X 6″. It’s made of nickle and silver. On the back it is stamped: 03100 Albert Pick & Company of Bridgeport, Inc. Nickle Silver, Silver Soldered, NI8. I wish I could post a picture of it. Does anybody have any items from this hospital?


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  5. Melva E. Perdomo

    Please comment about the Cristobal Hospital in the Atlantic side (Cristobal, Colon). I understand some inmigrants workers were guaranteeing in this hospital after arriving if they have less than 6 days traveling by ship. I guess this hospital was run by the USA or Canal Zone.


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