Theodore Roosevelt

The Man Who Led The Battle Against Yellow Fever

By W. F. Strong

I’m walking on the veranda of the Gorgas Building at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. It’s named for the famous Army physician, William Gorgas, who was sent here to Fort Brown in 1882. This building was already here when he was. It was the hospital he ran. What he would learn here, and what would happen to him, would change the world.

Gorgas was just 27 years old when arrived at Fort Brown. There was a full-blown yellow fever epidemic raging at the time. It was so named because it turned eyes and skin yellow. About half the people who came down with it, died. Yellow fever was not only deadly, it was quick. You could feel fine on Wednesday morning, have symptoms kick-in that afternoon, and be dead by Saturday.

Gorgas fought yellow fever head on. He didn’t yet know that mosquitoes spread it, but he did know that good sanitation and quarantining patients was useful. He launched public health measures that helped cut short the epidemic. Perhaps the best thing that happened to him during this time, and it will seem a strange thing to say, is that he came down with yellow fever himself, but it gave him life long immunity. He vowed to make fighting the disease his life’s work.

His next significant posting in his war on yellow fever was to Cuba.  It was there that the research of the Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, had laid out a convincing case for mosquitoes being responsible for transmitting the illness. Walter Reed, a name you likely recognize, tested Finlay’s theories and proved without a doubt that mosquitoes were responsible. Then Gorgas put the knowledge to practical use with fumigation, screening, and outlawing open cisterns and standing water. Astoundingly, those efforts virtually wiped out yellow fever in Havana in a couple of years, reducing cases from thousands a year to fewer than 20.

Then Dr. Gorgas made his big leap onto the world stage. You will remember the French had tried to dig the Panama Canal but failed miserably because they lost thousands of workers to yellow fever. Disease drove them out and silenced the steam shovels. The Americans, in a cannot-fail bid to do what the French couldn’t, resumed the dig. But in the first years, yellow fever and malaria threatened to drive the Americans out, too. Some said it would have taken 50 years and 80 thousand lives to finish the canal under those conditions.

Gorgas was brought in to solve the problem. But the political leaders in charge didn’t want to hear anything about his mosquito theory. They told him to keep that crazy theory to himself because “everyone knew that those tropical illnesses came from miasma, bad air.” Hell, the word Malaria itself came from Italian, translating verbatim “mal” “aria” – bad air. Gorgas learned as Galileo did that getting the world, even scientists, to ditch a centuries old belief system in favor of a new one, has always been unfathomably difficult.

Gorgas wanted to take what he had learned in Brownsville and Cuba and put it to work on a grand scale in Panama. He applied for a million dollars to protect Panama. The U.S. gave him 50 thousand. But with such poor funding, hundreds of workers were dying each month and the Americans risked being embarrassed by failure, just like the French. Teddy Roosevelt himself intervened and more or less said “give Gorgas what he wants.”

So it was then that Gorgas screened all the houses, buildings and particularly the hospitals in the Canal Zone. This was essential because a patient could only get yellow fever from a mosquito that had bitten someone with yellow fever. Gorgas also had an army of fumigators at work across the isthmus every day.

As he had in Cuba, Gorgas got rid of standing water and required covers on cisterns. He also drained swamps and treated undrainable waters with oil to keep larvae from forming. Within two years yellow fever had been completely eradicated from Panama.

Gorgas was considered the medical hero of the canal because, without his work, the engineers and diggers and construction workers could never have done their work. Gorgas without question, made the canal a reality.

After Panama, Gorgas eventually became Surgeon General of the U.S. Army and was knighted by the King of England for his work in tropical diseases, from which the British greatly benefited.

So here I sit on the veranda of his old hospital at Fort Brown in Texas. The building still bears Gorgas’ name. I also admire the fact that his name has a place of honor 8 thousand miles away on the side of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Here at Texas Southmost College, funded from this very building, are many fine programs in nursing and health professions active today.  I think Gorgas would be pleased.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Texas Campaign

By W. F. Strong

The Menger Hotel in San Antonio may boast of hosting more U.S. Presidents than any other hotel in Texas. George H. W. Bush stayed there. Clinton stayed there, as did Reagan. Nixon stayed there. So did Truman and Taft and McKinley. Even Ulysses S. Grant slept there.

The most important name not yet mentioned, and if you know your Texas history you’re already writing a letter to remind me, but don’t hit send just yet because I’m coming to him: Teddy Roosevelt. He rates as the most important of the lot because the others just slept and left. Teddy did far more. He left a bar behind, or at least a bar named for him, and you can still get a drink at the Roosevelt bar to this day, 120 years later.

How did that happen you may wonder? Well, you know all about the USS Maine getting blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898. At the time it was blamed on Spain with battle cries like “Remember the Maine; to hell with Spain.” The loss of some 260 sailors in that blast marked the beginning of the
Spanish American War.

This is where Teddy Roosevelt enters. He was not yet President, but would be in three years. At this time he was 40 and Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He asked for and was given permission to put together a cavalry unit of 1000 men, cowboy soldiers he called them, to help push Spain out of Cuba. He didn’t name them the Rough Riders, though, That was a name their public admirers gave them and they resisted it at first, but finally adopted it themselves.

So where could Teddy recruit 1000 rough riders. Well in Texas of course. So he went to the Menger Hotel, right across from the Alamo, and recruited great horseman from across the Southwest – from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. Roosevelt said these were a “splendid set of men . . . tall and sinewy with weather beaten faces, and eyes that looked a man straight in the face without flinching.” He said that in all the world there were no better men for this cavalry than “these grim hunters of the mountains, these wild rough riders of the plains.”

His challenge was to take these fiercely independent men and teach them military discipline. That’s why he had a preference for ex Texas Rangers. He said, “we got our highest average of recruits from Texas because many had served in that famous body of frontier fighters, the Texas Rangers. Of course these rangers needed no teaching. They were already trained to obey and take responsibility. They were splendid horsemen, shots and trackers. They were accustomed to living in the open . . . enduring hardship . . . and encountering all kinds of danger.” Native Americans too, such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creeks were also Rough Riders.

He did convert these independent men, with the help of General Wood, into a disciplined cavalry unit within a month. He even got most of the men horses from Texas, some of them unbroken, but that was no problem for these expert horsemen. Roosevelt named his own horse “Texas.”

As Roosevelt was always a showman, he had his commander’s uniform made by Brooks Brothers in New York. He also introduced his men to the blue bandana with white polka dots, which became the distinguishing feature of the Rough Rider’s uniform. To this day, in black and white photographs, the
Rough Riders look impressively stylish in their khaki pants, blue flannel shirts, trademark bandanas, and slouch hats.

The rest of the Rough Riders story is well known, but perhaps erroneously visualized. Most think of it as 1000 horses thundering majestically up San Juan Hill like a scene from War Horse. They did in fact charge up San Juan Hill and route the Spanish forces, but delete the horses from your mind. There were none. They did it on foot and on their bellies. Roosevelt was on horseback part of the time, shouting commands as they fought inch by inch through tropical brush and oppressive heat, dodging torrents of bullets to take the hill, but they did it as infantrymen.

Despite all their cavalry training in San Antonio, they weren’t able to get their horses to Cuba. Why? When they were ready to depart from Tampa to Cuba, the navy didn’t have enough ships for the horses, so they were left behind. Those with military experience will just shake their heads at this nature of monumental snafu.

Nonetheless, the Rough Riders and other U.S. forces pushed the Spanish out of Cuba and liberated the island. Teddy Roosevelt wrote the primary history of the campaign which launched him into national fame and a good way toward the Presidency. The road to the White House, for Teddy, started in Texas at the Menger Hotel, in the shadow of the Alamo.