Dr. Carlos Finlay, the Man Who Saved the Panama Canal

By | December 5, 2018

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A statue of Carlos Finlay. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

As a Cuban doctor in the 1850s, Carlos Juan Finlay saw his fair share of patients suffering from yellow fever and malaria and he was determined to uncover the causes of these two diseases. His research, observations, and experimentation led him to one conclusion. Mosquitoes spread the viruses for these diseases from person to person. His work, however, was dismissed by the medical and scientific communities. It wasn’t until disease outbreaks halted the construction of the Panama Canal that scientists began to believe in Finlay’s findings. His groundbreaking work on the link between mosquitoes and the transmission of illness made it possible for the Panama Canal to be completed. 

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As a Physician, Finlay Noted Mosquito Bites

Finlay, the son of a Scottish doctor, studied in France -- his mother’s homeland --, Cuba, and the United States, earning his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. After he set up his own practice in Cuba in the 1850s, he began seeing lots of malaria and yellow fever patients. He observed that people suffering from malaria or yellow fever often had more mosquito bites on their skin than others. Living in the warm, tropical climate, mosquitoes were a common pest and an annoyance, but Finlay believed they could also be deadly.