Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Dr. Carol L. Summers
In May 1904, American engineers, doctors, nurses, and laborers arrived in Panama to begin work on one of the most expensive, challenging, and rewarding technological achievements of the twentieth century- the Panama Canal. At the time, the majority of Americans saw Panama as a wild tropical jungle, with dangerous diseases and a hostile climate. One of the most prevalent diseases in tropical regions, yellow fever, also known as yellow jack, was known to pose an enormous challenge to the success of the canal construction- the first mountain blocking Panama from successful U.S. intervention (see image above). In the popular U.S. imagination, Panama provided opportunities for employment but at a potentially very high cost. The cartoon above also illustrates more public perceptions of Central American culture, that were to play a large role in the development of notions of U.S. superiority and right to imperialism. The skull itself gives the impression of a typical Mexican sombrero figure, lazily waiting for whoever might approach. This depiction fed into American stereotypes of lassitude as a common cultural feature among Latin Americans. Panama, blocked by death and a lack of inventiveness or energy, was apparently viewed by many contemporary Americans as an ideal location for U.S. intervention and construction.
Rhoads, Sarah, "Regulating death and building empire : American doctors and the construction of the Panama canal, 1904-1914" (2012). Honors Theses. 66.