It is common knowledge that President James A. Garfield would have survived an assassin’s bullet had doctors not treated him by probing the wound with their dirty fingers.
In fact, if Garfield’s medical team had performed no treatment whatsoever following the July 2, 1881, shooting, the president likely would have lived.
They can be forgiven if they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. They knew how to treat Garfield successfully, but they chose not to.
Background: famously industrious, intelligent and genteel, Garfield might have become one of our best presidents ever. Just a few months into his term, he already had stood up courageously to powerful spoils system backers in the Senate.
“Of course I deprecate war,” Garfield famously said. “But if it is brought to my door, the bringer will find me at home.”
Sadly, a mentally ill man named Charles J. Guiteau thought he deserved a federal appointment and resolved to murder the president. He stalked Garfield and shot him inside a Washington, D.C., train station.
From there, a cadre of doctors took over and finished the job. They introduced massive infection that slowly destroyed Garfield’s body. He died Sept. 19, 1881.
At the time of the shooting, the medical profession was embroiled in a furious dispute over treatment protocols. English doctors were having phenomenal success using antiseptic surgery standards developed by Dr. Joseph Lister.
He would come to be known as “the Father of Modern Surgery.” Lister first published his guide to antiseptic surgery in a series of articles in 1867. He later toured America and gave lectures to U.S. doctors on sterilization.
He was not well received. It seems that stubborn professional pride kept even the very best American doctors from taking Lister seriously.
Keep in mind that doctors of the day routinely operated in blood-encrusted robes and placed little emphasis on washing their instruments, much less their own hands.
The accepted practice was to flush out wounds with warm water, in other words, a teeming vat of bacteria. No wonder that having surgery usually meant death on the table.
American doctors scoffed at the idea of invisible germs. They paid no mind to Lister’s scientific data of England’s surgery successes.
This story saddens me. The best and brightest U.S. doctors from around the country consulted on Garfield’s treatment -- men and women, young and old, black and white.
And nobody asked them to invent heroic treatments on the spot. They didn’t need to. The life-saving treatment the president needed was well known and in use for more than a decade.
There’s a life lesson here for anyone confronted with a new way. But my aim is not to be sanctimonious.
This story has a happy ending of sorts. The American Medical Association quickly adopted antiseptic standards. Had this shooting incident taken place 15 years later, a simple surgery would have had the patient up and feeling like new within a couple days.
Unfortunately, it came too late to save a great man.
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at email@example.com.
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