Looking Back

An American doctor in 1903 Manila

The lockdown due to the new coronavirus outbreak prompted reader requests for columns on epidemics in Philippine history.

My recent columns touched on the 1820 cholera epidemic and massacre (1/29/2020) and the Rizals in the 1882 epidemic (2/5/2020). Untapped primary source material on plagues and calamities in our history can fill many doctoral dissertations, and a stand-out for readability and humor is “An American Doctor’s Odyssey: Adventures in Forty-five Countries” (New York, 1936) by Victor George Heiser, MD, available online from the Filipinas Heritage Library. It opens with a first-hand account of the 1889 Johnstown Flood caused by a dam breach that surged through Heiser’s Pennsylvania town and swept his home and family away. He survived at 16 years old. Years later, Heiser joined the US Marine Hospital Service, sharpening his observation skills in detecting disease and diseased immigrants seeking entry into the US. In 1903, he sailed to Manila as chief quarantine officer, and was appointed director of health — a post he kept until he left in 1915. Mixed with descriptions of symptoms and ailments in his book are observations that also provide anthropological, sociological, and political insight into the early years of the American occupation.


Heiser was welcomed to Manila with the following statistics: Plague and cholera were rampant in the city, 40,000 unvaccinated people died of smallpox annually, 50,000 were dead from tuberculosis, thousands had beriberi, over 10,000 were afflicted with leprosy, and insane people were chained like animals and hidden in homes. Not to mention that medical care had not reached 300,000 people in the mountains, and the Philippines had the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Confronted by these numbers, Heiser vowed to save 50,000 lives a year; it seems he saved way more than he planned, through vaccination, education, and involvement in the early years of the Philippine General Hospital and the Culion leper colony.

Heiser turned the Philippines into a laboratory, disproving myths like that of the lazy Filipino, which was also answered by Rizal in his landmark essay “The Indolence of the Filipino.” Noting that siesta was inherited from the Spanish, Heiser countered that the average Filipino was hardworking; even the upper classes, who looked down on physical labor, like “carpentering, gardening, or even walking… could not be called mentally lazy.” Heiser adapted to Filipino notions of time so different from his own, saying that while he measured distance by the time it took to get from point A to B, Filipinos reckoned “distance by the time it took to smoke two cigarettes, or five, or whatever the number might be.”


As for appointments, Americans would be at the agreed place at 10, while the Filipino left his house at 10 and arrived at the appointed place at 11. He explained that the “tendency to evasion,” the Filipino way of never saying no, was “the net result of centuries of subjection… characteristic of people who have long lived in a state of dependency.” He noted that cockfighting was a popular pastime, making cockpits the epicenter of disease outbreaks at times, adding: “In case of fire, the Filipino is popularly said to rescue first his cock, then his wife, and lastly his children. A cock costs money, a wife nothing, and children are easily come by.”

There is much in Heiser’s book that will make you laugh, like his testing a theory that Americans could better cope with tropical heat using orange-red underwear! A thousand US soldiers, chosen at random, were supplied with orange-red underwear, while the rest used regulation white. Unfortunately, the sampling was skewed due to a shortage of average sizes 36 and 38, leaving small men for the study. After a few washings, the orange-red underwear turned “a most peculiar and unpleasant shade of muddy yellow,” leading to taunts and teasing from those in white underwear. At the end of the experiment, the orange-reds declared that the underwear didn’t help at all, so after a year, Heiser noted wistfully: “The ragged remains of the orange-red underwear quietly disappeared.”

Working for the Rockefeller Foundation in 1915-1935, Heiser circumnavigated the world 16 times more than Magellan, in his unending battle against disease. He died in New York in 1972, a year short of his centennial, leaving his papers with the American Philosophical Society, which I hope to visit someday to better understand why we Filipinos are the way we are.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, An American Doctor’s Odyssey, Looking Back, Philippine history, Victor George Heiser
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