Panama Canal: Background and Impact

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Table of Contents

  • Background
  • Impact
  • Solutions
  • Final Analysis
  • Works Cited

Did you know that a useful canal, found between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, caused over 22,000 deaths? The Panama Canal is an important waterway that caused thousands of lives to be taken, which is why people choose to research the incredible facts that other people may not realize. This canal is used by many countries across the world, and the history of this canal goes back to the 1800’s. Many people and history books overlook this canal but sailors find it very useful in their everyday lives. This canal is important because of the safer route and faster travel. This canal saves thousands of miles and avoids the dangerous Cape Horn, found at the tip of South America, which has caused hundreds of boat crashes.

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Many countries had an inspiring idea to create an artificial waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. This waterway would create a faster, easier, and safer traveling route. If one would travel from New York to San Francisco on boat, using the canal would save an estimated 7,800 miles. Before the Panama Canal was built boats would face the difficult journey through Cape Horn. When sailors traveled through Cape horn they faced heavy winds, massive waves, and icebergs. This canal was easier because it created a place for sailors to stop and get some rest while the canal moved through the locks ran by Panamanians (Sims).

The first idea of building the Panama canal dated back to the 1500’s when King Charles the first was on the throne. The project was first taken on by the French in 1880. Because of malaria, yellow fever, and heavy landslides, the French had many casualties and were forced to put a stop to the project. In 1902 United States decided they wanted to take over this massive project. They needed to purchase French assets for the canal, worth $40 million. Under president Theodore Roosevelt, the United States proposed a treaty to work on the canal since it was then Columbian soil. Columbia rejected the treaty so the United states put military weight behind Panama while they were seeking independence. They then negotiated a deal to give them rights to build the canal on Panama soil (

The United states wanted to learn from the French mistakes. The United states did not want to have many casualties from malaria, yellow fever, or landslides. The malaria and yellow fever are both caused by mosquitoes. Panama has a moist environment that draw mosquitoes near the canal. The rainy season in Panama lasts around nine months, which causes both Mosquitoes and landslides. There was an estimated amount of 1/6th of the population of Panama having malaria ( The United States was faced with a difficult decision, on how to address this situation.


The political impact of Panama Canal is that it made the made it much easier to travel or trade goods. This made it easier because you could cross over from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic instead of traveling around South America. This is a political impact because it the United States needed to make a decision if they wanted to take on the project of the Canal. Furthermore, they needed to then get the permission from Columbia since Panama was not yet independent. Next, the political impact was putting military weight behind Panama, supporting them while they seek independence. This impact resulted in Panama becoming independent (Sayal).

The cultural impact of the Panama Canal is that many different ethnicity came together and joined as a community. During the building of the canal workers were hired from the West Indies, Italy, France, and Spain (Sims). After the building studies show that Panama is one of the fastest growing economies today (Ramesch). This impacts the culture because it creates a label for Panama to be a true “melting pot.” Which means that there are many kinds of races and ethnicities throughout the Panama region from this major project. Even today this impact is still affecting this region, which leads on the the next cultural impact.

Another example of cultural impact is how this canal affected the jobs created. During the canal building it is said that at the peak of hiring there was said to be over 75,000 men and women working on the canal (Sims). This did not only affect the unemployment, but sadly this also affected casualties. The more workers on the job created an unsafe work environment. According to research, after 32 years of construction building the canal there was around 28,000 deaths. This cultural effect affected the families that lost a loved one that was possibly providing an income. This could have caused grief for the family or for the one to come up with finding a new job, and possibly taking care of children (Office of Historian).


Like stated above, malaria was a major problem for the French which was passed onto the United States. The difference is that the United States took action. During this time, Major Ronald Ross discovered that yellow fever and malaria was caused by mosquitoes. That was when they decided to hire Dr. William Gorgas. Gorgas was part of the team of the sanitation department that also included medical veterans. The group came up with a list of how to control the mosquito problem (Prevention for Disease Prevention).

The first step of these sanitation measures was drainage, they were to drain all pools that were 200 yards of villages. They would also drain the subsoil in the ditches, then concrete them. The next step was Oiling, when they couldn’t drain they would cover ponds, lakes, and tall grass in oil to try and kill the mosquitoes. The next step of action would be larviciding, there were no comercial pesticides at the time so a man named Joseph Augustin LePrince, which was Chief Sanitary Inspector, invented the first pesticide. The pesticide was made of carbonic acid, resin, and caustic soda. The next step is prophylactic quinine, which was a medicine to treat workers to prevent malaria. Around the canal there was 21 dispensaries and half of the workforce took it each day, quinine is still used today to treat malaria. Next, building were screened against mosquitoes from getting in. The last step was killing adult mosquitoes, collectors were actually paid to catch adult mosquitoes for testing, they were paid $3.50/per capita/per year (Centers for Disease Control).

The final results of the steps was a death rate drop from 11.59 per 1,000 in 1906 to 1.23 per 1,000 in 1909 in employees. And 16.21 per 1,000 in 1096 to 2.58 per 1,000 in 1909 in the total population (Centers for Disease Control). From this evidence it is clear that the steps reduced the deaths caused by malaria, which led to the completion of the Panama Canal directed by president Teddy Roosevelt. Once they had control of malaria causing sickness they finally got things done. They cut a nine mile stretch out of mountains Gamboa and Pedro Miguel using 30,000 tons (60,000,000 pounds) of dynamite. Next they began concreting 110 ft wide x 1,000 ft long locks that were from 47-85 ft in height, the canal started to get finished up in 1913. The Panama Canal opened on August 15th 1914, 32 years of construction (Centers for Disease Control). The United States handed the canal over to Panama on December 31st 1999, only 20 years ago.

Final Analysis

The Panama Canal was a great accomplishment made by both Panama and the United States. Today this canal is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, it has provided faster travel, many jobs, and a safer route. During the time the canal symbolized “a major foreign policy achievement, today it symbolizes “technological and economic power” ( This was a great achievement because many people stepped up and found a way to work around a situation that seemed impossible. Even today the canal has brought a entire different community together. And although many deaths and tragic accidents occured, countries came together and worked around it to create a truly significant waterway.

Works Cited

  • (2019). Milestones: 1899–1913 – Office of the Historian. [online] Available at:
  • [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

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