I shudder to consider what the best medical science had to offer in the late 1800s, although I wonder what medical scientists and physicians will think of us in a hundred or so years (if the Lord has not come by then):
President James A. Garfield lay in a rodent-infested sickroom in the White House, a bullet lodged in his body. Weeks had passed since the assassin had struck, but more than a dozen doctors were struggling to save him. Day after day, summer temperatures approached 100 degrees, and mosquitoes thrived in the swamps around Washington. Four White House staff members had contracted malaria recently, as had the first lady, Lucretia Garfield. The president’s internal infections raged and spread, fevers came and went, and his heart began to weaken. He felt it most in his lower extremities—the acute neurological sensations he called “tiger’s claws,” which seized him regularly. Aides at his bedside would squeeze his feet and calves with all their might to relieve the 49-year-old president’s pain.HT: Tim Challies.
“Yes, I suffer some,” he told one attendant. “I suppose the tigers are coming back, but they don’t usually stay long. Don’t be alarmed, old boy!”
His three oldest children, Harry, James and Mollie, all teenagers, were taken into his room for visits, advised to do most of the talking and not to bring up anything unpleasant out of fear of aggravating their father’s condition. Doctors desperately probed Garfield’s abdomen with unsterilized tools and unwashed hands in search of the bullet, which had lodged harmlessly in soft tissue near his vertebrae. Such a gunshot wound today would require no more than a few days in the hospital. But the 20th president of the United States was spiraling rapidly and inevitably to his death—bravely and for the most part in good cheer as his physicians made one mistake after another, from nutrition to medication. . . .
The president was taken to the White House. Over the next 24 hours, more than 15 doctors stuffed their unwashed fingers into his intestinal wound, trying to locate Guiteau’s bullet and ultimately causing sepsis. They repeatedly injected him with morphine, causing the president to vomit; they next tried champagne, which only made him sicker. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, had been advocating since Lincoln’s death for more sterile procedures and environments, but American doctors ridiculed him. “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method,” one doctor scoffed in 1878, “it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.”
As the weeks passed, Garfield’s body became engorged with pus. His face began to swell and had to be drained. Initial meals of steak, eggs and brandy were soon replaced by eggs, bouillon, milk, whiskey and opium. He lost nearly 100 pounds as his doctor’s starved him. Doctors inserted drainage tubes and continued to probe for the bullet; at one point, they brought in Alexander Graham Bell, who had invented a metal detector and thought he might be able to locate the slug by passing it over the president’s abdomen. All was for naught.
Garfield asked to be moved to a peaceful oceanfront cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey where he’d been a regular visitor over the years. Local residents, informed that the ailing president was planning to arrive in Long Branch, laid down half a mile of railroad tracks in 24 hours, so that rather than ride by horse and carriage over rough roads, the president could be taken smoothly by train, right to the cottage door. Garfield found no relief from the staggering heat, and he died in his bed in the New Jersey cottage on September 18, 1881, less than two weeks after he arrived. On the following day, the emergency tracks were torn up and the wooden ties were used to build the Garfield Tea House, which stands today. That November, Charles Guiteau stood trial for murder, was convicted and hanged the following summer. Defending himself in court, he had declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”