Death Not By Assassination
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Death Not By Assassination

On a July day in 1881, President James Garfield arrived at a Washington, D.C., train depot. Two shots rang out. The newly elected president was struck in the back, targeted by a disgruntled lawyer. But what actually killed President Garfield began with the doctors who first treated him and the care he received leading up to his death two months later.

Immediately after the shooting, doctors began probing Garfield’s wound looking for the bullet, but neglected a step vitally important in medicine today. They didn’t bother washing their hands or the instruments they used, leaving the president vulnerable to fatal infection.

After determining the bullet wasn’t in a fatal spot, they moved the president to the White House where an incompetent physician, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (who was a physician but whose given name was also "Doctor"), took over. He delayed surgery and forced Garfield to eat rich meals and drink a great deal of alcohol.

Since the X-ray had not been invented yet, Bliss continued to manually probe the wound several times a day looking for the bullet, but never disinfecting his hands first. Bliss was aware of the importance of hand washing because for years an English surgeon, Joseph Lister, had urged doctors to adopt this simple practice to prevent infection. Yet, American doctors resisted this “as too much trouble”.

Soon the President developed a fever and began vomiting. The once strong man lingered in agony until his death from a massive infection on September nineteenth, eighteen-eighty-one. Sadly, an autopsy showed the bullet was not in a fatal spot.

Though the shooter was hung, it was an incompetent physician that ultimately killed President Garfield.

For more information…

Life and Death in the White House
From the Museum of American History

Topics in Chronicling America - The Garfield Assassination
From the Library of Congress

James Garfield Assassination
From the American Presidents History website

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President page about Candice Millard's epic historical narrative about President Garfield

Dr. Joseph Lister
Wikipedia biography of the pioneer of antiseptic surgery