Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Doctors Who Killed a President

The Doctors Who Killed a President
September 30, 2011

For 11 weeks Garfield endured unsterilized probings, large doses of quinine and a vermin-infested sickroom.

A Tale of Madness, Medicine,and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard

A near drowning while he labored on the Erie and Ohio Canal convinced him that God “had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canalling,” he wrote. For the next few years, he worked his way up through local schools and Williams College; at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), a preparatory school, he mastered his studies so thoroughly that he was promoted from janitor to assistant professor. Returning there to teach, he became the school’s president at 26. In his spare time, he passed the Ohio bar.

Excelling both in combat and as a top staff officer, he rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War but was sickened by the carnage of battle. “Garfield would later tell a friend,” Millard writes, “that ‘something went out of him . . . that never came back; the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.’ ”

Elected to Congress in 1862, Garfield fought for black rights and liberty, writing in his pocket diary, “Servitium esto damnatum”— “slavery be damned.” Modest to a fault, he toiled diligently in the legislative vineyards for 17 years...

Had Garfield been left where he lay, he might well have survived; the bullet failed to hit his spine or penetrate any vital organs. Instead, he was given over to the care of doctors, who basically tortured him to death over the next 11 weeks. Two of them repeatedly probed his wound with their unsterilized fingers and instruments before having him carted back to the White House on a hay-and-horsehair mattress.

There, control of the president was seized by a quack with the incredible name of Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss. Dr. Doctor Bliss insisted on stuffing Garfield with heavy meals and alcohol, which brought on protracted waves of vomiting. He and his assistants went on probing the wound several times a day, causing infections that burrowed enormous tunnels of pus throughout the president’s body.

Garfield’s medical “care” is one of the most fascinating, if appalling, parts of Millard’s narrative. Joseph Lister had been demonstrating for years how his theories on the prevention of infection could save lives and limbs, but American doctors largely ignored his advice, not wanting to “go to all the trouble” of washing hands and instruments, Millard writes, enamored of the macho trappings of their profession, the pus and blood and what they referred to fondly as the “good old surgical stink” of the operating room.

Further undermining the president’s recovery was his sickroom in the White House — then a rotting, vermin-ridden structure with broken sewage pipes. Outside, Washington was a pestilential stink hole; besides the first lady, four White House servants and Guiteau himself had contracted malaria. Hoping to save Garfield from the same, Bliss fed him large doses of quinine, causing more intestinal cramping...

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