How doctors killed President Garfield
"Lister, an Englishman, embraced this theory in the early 1860s," said Reznick. "American doctors did not believe in the Listerian Theory because they subscribed to the miasma theory, the fact that bad air caused disease and illness, not germs. They didn't believe in germs - germs you couldn't see."
On the scene at the train station: Cabinet member Robert Todd Lincoln. Present at his father's death 16 years before, he would also witness the murder of McKinley 20 years later.
"Of the four presidential assassinations, he was there for three of them," Millard said - a pretty ghoulilsh distinction!
It was Lincoln who summoned Dr. D. Willard Bliss (the 'D' stood for Doctor, his actual first name).
"Bliss was a uniquely arrogant and ambitious man, and he just took charge," Millard said.
There would be no second opinions. For an excruciating 80 days, made even worse by the oppressively hot Washington summer, Garfield suffered stoically as his condition worsened.
"He is riddled with infection at this point, he has these abscesses all through his body," Millard said.
And he was starving to death. Unable to keep down the rich sumptuous meals he was being fed, the president's weight plunged from 210 pounds to 130.
In a panic to find the bullet still lodged in the president, Bliss called on Alexander Graham Bell - yes, THAT Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
Bell's task: Use his "induction balance," a kind of metal detector, to find the bullet so it could be extracted once and for all.
Unbeknownst to Bell, Garfield was lying on a bed made of metal springs, rare at the time - "Which is obviously going to affect a metal detector!" said Millard.
"But worse than that, Bliss had believed - and had publicly stated - that the bullet was on the right side of the president's body. And he would only let Bell examine that part of the president's body. And of course the bullet had gone to the left."
"Willful ignorance?" asked Rocca.
"It's just one of the incredible dangers of ambition. He did not want to be proven wrong."
President Garfield finally died on September 19, 1881.
The autopsy confirmed Bliss' ignorance.
"So President Garfield didn't have to die," said Dr. Reznick. "President Garfield died because of what his doctors did to him, and what his doctors DIDN'T do to him."
But from this senseless horror came good: the use of antiseptics was quickly accepted by American doctors. Civil service reform was enacted . . . and perhaps, even more significantly, it brought the North and South together for the first time since the Civil War.
"It healed this deep, deep, deep wound because there was this common sorrow and this understanding of loss," said Millard.
As for the man who shot the president, Charles Guiteau would be hanged, only aware at the very end that he would not be celebrated for killing the president.
Guiteau actually said, "Yes, I shot him, but his doctors killed him."
"This insane person actually says something sane," said Rocca.
"Yeah. And it's true. Unfortunately, it's absolutely true," said Millard.
For more info:
- "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard (Doubleday)
- You can visit James Garfield's home outside of Cleveland Ohio
- National Library of Medicine
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