When Malpractice Killed a President

Kamie Berry | June 30th, 2017

Four presidents have been assassinated in U.S. history: Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield, and Kennedy. All four were shot, but one of them, James Garfield, did not have to die. In fact, his death would go down as one of the most famous cases of medical malpractice in American history.

James Garfield was elected as the 20th President of the United States in 1881. He was a remarkable man. Born into an extremely poor family, he worked as a janitor to put himself through his first year of university at Williams College and managed to become president of that university by age 26. He had the potential to be one of America’s greatest presidents had he not been struck down just four months into his only term.

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Charles Guiteau, the president’s assassin, was angry because he could not get a high-level government job. He blamed the president for this, and showed up at a D.C. train station on the day Garfield was scheduled to leave on a trip. There was no Secret Service in those days, so Guiteau was able to walk right up and shoot him twice, in the arm and the back.

Had Garfield been shot today, he most likely would have lived because neither bullet hit any major organs or blood vessels. He might even had lived had he received no medical attention. After being shot, several doctors stuck their unwashed, unsterilized fingers into the wound to try to find the bullet, right there on the train station floor. It should come as no surprise, then, that Garfield developed a severe infection because of this treatment.

He was brought back to the White House, where he suffered for over two months in the unusually hot Washington summer. His main physician, Dr. Willard Bliss, took complete control over his care and refused to seek any outside help. He continued to have Garfield served rich food from the White House kitchens that the sick man could not keep down. As a result, the president lost nearly 80 pounds, as infection took over his entire body.

Convinced that if he could find and remove the bullet that the president would recover, Bliss sent for Alexander Graham Bell, the man who is better known today as the inventor of the telephone.  Bell had invented a primitive metal detector, and Dr. Bliss wanted to use it to find the bullet.

Bliss insisted that Bell only examine Garfield’s right side, since he believed the bullet was there. The bullet had migrated to the president’s left side, though, so it was not located. Making matters worse, Bell was not told that Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs, which probably rendered the metal detector useless, anyway.

Begging to be removed from the D.C. heatwave, in early September he was moved by train to a house on the New Jersey coast. It was there that he died almost two weeks after arriving.

After this death, the sources of infection became more widely understood. Doctors started using antiseptic procedures, greatly reducing such needless deaths from infection.

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