Filth-Loving Doctors Doomed Garfield After He Was Shot: Review

The cover jacket of "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Even most American history buffs know only the broad outline of the crime: On July 2, 1881, four months after taking office, President James A. Garfield was gunned down in a Washington train station by a man named Charles Guiteau.

Gravely wounded but not killed, Garfield was set upon by doctors.

The first probed the wound with his finger in an attempt to find the bullet. A second, who had cared for the wounded Abraham Lincoln almost 20 years before, used an unsterilized probe to dig for the offending slug of lead -- again, unsuccessfully.

Only then did it occur to anyone to cart the president back to the White House. He lingered for three months before succumbing to profound septic poisoning.

Candice Millard recounts the whole sorry episode in illuminating if sometimes excruciatingly detailed fashion in “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.”

America’s Gilded Age has been fairly well picked over by historians, except for the bewhiskered triumvirate who succeeded President Ulysses S. Grant.

Between Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur was Garfield. He may have been the standout in an otherwise unpromising bunch, but the truth is we’ll never know. The samples of Garfield’s writing Millard uses to preface each chapter don’t quite close the deal.

‘Surgical Stink’

This is a book of horrors. The chief one is that American medicine at the time refused to acknowledge the existence of germs, and so resisted “antisepsis,” or the practice of disinfecting and sterilizing everything that came in contact with patients in order to give them a fighting chance.

“Not only did American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession,” Millard writes. “They spoke fondly of the ‘good old surgical stink’ that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms, and they resisted making too many concessions even to basic hygiene.”

This was in spite of the work of Joseph Lister, the British doctor who had championed antisepsis for more than a decade. The American old guard, epitomized by the physician who took over Garfield’s care (named hopefully by his parents Doctor Willard Bliss -- yes, he was Dr. Doctor), would have none of it.

As Millard observes, had Garfield been shot 15 years later, he probably would have survived. Had he just been left alone, he might have served out his term, no worse than the many veterans who carried similar reminders of their Civil War service.

Pistol-Packing Lunatic

Another horror featured here, and one that’s still with us today, is the lunatic with the pistol.

Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, is described by Millard as someone who had descended into “delusion and madness” years before. Invariably described outside these pages as a disappointed office-seeker, he was really just a nut.

Shiftless and cunning, Guiteau is nevertheless a profoundly uninteresting character, which is too bad because Millard has him carry about one-third of her narrative. The only curious thing about the man is that he was at large.

This was, after all, the age of the madhouse. Guiteau, who made a practice of skipping out on his rent in a day when thieves were dealt with in a harsher style than today, was a prime candidate for institutionalization.

Did you know the first air conditioner was concocted by navy engineers in an effort to keep the dying president cool? That’s a good story.

Less compelling is Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of what he called the “Induction Balance,” designed to locate metal bullets. It didn’t work on Garfield, though that wasn’t entirely Bell’s fault.

Last Word

“Destiny of the Republic” will probably be the last word on the Garfield assassination. Still, there are some issues the author might wish to address in future editions.

On page 138, Millard states that the bullet “missed his spinal cord.” In the acknowledgments, she says, “I held in my gloved hands the section of Garfield’s spine which the bullet had pierced.”

Finally, the author states that Garfield’s secretary of war, Robert Todd Lincoln, earned “the dubious distinction of being the only man to be present at three of our nation’s four presidential assassinations.” Lincoln was waiting on the platform for Garfield when he was shot and was visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo when William McKinley was shot in 1901. He wasn’t, however, present in Ford’s Theatre when John Wilkes Booth targeted his father.

“Destiny of the Republic” is published by Doubleday (339 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Joe Mysak is editor of Bloomberg Brief’s Municipal Market. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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