The Treatment of the Mentally Insane in the Panama Canal Zone

Ancon Hospital circa 1920.

Continuing our series on the hospital history of the Panama Canal Zone, we’ll take a look at how the entire issue of the mentally ill was approached by the administrators of the Canal, both French and American.

The problem of mental illness came to present itself in different facets, sometimes very difficult to resolve. Classic cases of febrile illnesses such as yellow fever and malaria during the construction of the Canal often left as unwelcome vestiges major episodes of nervous disorders and sundry breakdowns that increasingly pointed to the need for clinical treatment for the various mental conditions.  In fact, even today, in Panamathe problem of severe depression is almost historically linked to the times of the Canal construction when so many cases arose as a consequence of this huge undertaking.

It is significant to note that the Taft Convention, signed between the United States and Panama in December 1904 to resolve disagreements that may have arisen on the basis of unilateral interpretations of the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty concerning the Panama Canal, considered “mental problems” important enough to mention as an article of consideration in the treaty.

It assigned the responsibility to “build, maintain and manage a hospital or hospitals, either in the Canal Zone or within Panama,” to the Americans, “for people with mental illnesses or leprosy and for charity patients, and for the United States to accept for treatment persons of these categories who were sent by the Republic of Panama.”

Following up on the commitment to this treaty, an initial group of 18 Panamanian patients which then swelled to 125, were transferred to a facility in the town of Corozal, better known as Miraflores Hospital, where treatment for mental illness was provided.

At the time, theRepublicofPanamawas paying $1.00 a day for these patients. However, the medical installations were already quite old and worn from the French period, and, in addition, the hospital managers didn’t want any separation of treatment between patients and wanted them generally returned toAnconHospital. The Canal authorities were now faced with the urgent need for more physical space to house a large and growing group of new workers who should soon reach the Isthmus.

The result was that on October 4, 1905 authorization was given for the construction of new buildings to accommodate facilities for treatment of the insane in nearby Ancon Hospital Ancon. Built on the site of an earlier French L’Hospital Notre Dame de Canal, it was originally (1904) christened Ancon Hospital by the Americans.

In February, 1907, an asylum complex was opened inAnconHospitalwith a total of twelve buildings which were distributed in the following manner:

1. Administration: two flats for rooms of doctors, nurses head office, deposit and central dining hall.

2 Central Kitchen: A fourth and central warehouse for employees and food preparation for all patients.

3 Dining: Only for the sick and with prior medical recommendations.

4. Two two-story buildings for male patients with a capacity of 32 to 44 beds.

5  A building for women: a single storey edifice with capacity for 16 beds, and this only as a recovery centre.

6 Special Buildings: Tri-plex type single storey structures with capacity for 20 beds each, two for men and one for dining.  This complex included an office for nurses and storage.

7. Cells for men.  These cells were for violent male patients with very high windows and doors protected by strong iron bars with dimensions measuring 8 ½ x 10 half feet. The cells totaled capacity for 14 patients.

8.  Cells for women: For equally violent or extremely disturbed women patients were of equal dimensions to the ones for men but were laid out in two rows of five.

9.  A Building for Employees: A single storey unit to accommodate 12 people.

The entire facility was completely surrounded by an 8 foot tall wire fence with a single gateway.

The highest authority for the Ancon Hospital Insane Asylum was a superintendent who lived on the hospital grounds.  He also had an assistant, a Chief Nurse, four male nurses/attendants, assistants and support staff. Admissions were handled solely by a Board composed of the Chairman and the Chief of Medical Services of Ancon Hospital and Superintendent of the Insane Asylum.

November 3, 1928, the Insane Asylum of theAnconHospitalwas terminated officially through an Executive Order signed by President Calvin Coolidge of theUnited States,.

Through this order all mental patients were now transferred to the new Corozal Hospital specializing in mental disorders and were placed under the command of the Canal area health service. In relocating all patients to a singleinstitutionHospital Corozal took a significant step in at least recognizing the importance of treatment for this category of patients.

What started, then, as a way of clinically coping with the onslaught of mental illness arising from the diverse tropical fevers and gruesome physical hazards of the Canal construction, eventually turned into a proving ground for developments in the treatment of mental illness inPanama.  Of course, with the Silver Roll workers swelling the ranks of the mental wards, their part in this history needs to be told.

Gorgas Hospital in the Corregimiento of Ancon would later come to be known as the New Ancon Hospital before it was officially known as GorgasHospital.

Our many thanks to Dr. Alonso Roy for the historical basics in this article.

2 responses to “The Treatment of the Mentally Insane in the Panama Canal Zone

  1. Good to see you here perusing our articles Laurence.


  2. Fascinating article. Thank you.


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