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The Man Who Invented Panama
A distinguished newsman recalls a snowy night in wartime Paris, when a radio network briefly rescued from obscurity “one of the most extraordinary Frenchmen who ever lived”
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
In the conferences I had with him as the broadcast date approached, I learned more about his extraordinary career. The day the Great War began, in August of 1914, Philippe Bunau-Varilla was on the first great steamer that sailed through the Panama Canal. A year later, he was on the Champagne front with the French Second Army when lack of a water supply threatened to cripple a planned September offensive. On the spot, Bunau-Varilla devised a purification system which he called “Verdunization,” since it was used during the great Battle of Verdun; later he referred to the incident as “the most extraordinary adventure of my life.” (His latest adventure was always his best.) On the Verdun front he lost his leg in a bomb explosion. That, one would think, would have been his most memorable and critical adventure, but he gave it less than a page in his autobiography and devoted a whole chapter to “Verdunization.” His historical perspective was good, for his water purifying system was adopted by cities all over the world.