Monday, July 2, 2012

Civil War Monday (Special Edition) Ignorance Was Bliss

How many Civil War generals became President of the United States?  And which one, by his assassination, changed the entire course of medicine as practiced in the United States?


I won't give you the answer to the "how many generals" question (the answer can be found online) but a CBS news story had a wonderful take on the Civil War general turned President who was assassinated - but killed by his doctors, with the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell and a metal detector he invented.

The man was James Garfield.

If you've never heard of him you are not alone.  He wasn't President for too long.

The story of Garfield, the last "log cabin President", is quite fascinating.  It is a wonderful picture of just how corrupt politics had become in this country by 1881.  James Garfield, in his few short months in office, had started to fight that corruption, when a man who thought he was ordered by the Allmighty to kill Garfield came along.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot while waiting for a train by a frustrated office seeker.  In modern times, the wound wouldn't have been serious enough to hospitalize him for more than 3 or 4 days.  But in 1881, aided by a heaping dose of medical ignorance, Garfield lingered for 81 days before passing away.

In those days, many doctors in the United States did not believe in the theory of germs - medical theory stated that something called miasma (bad air) caused illness. So, at the scene, Garfield was placed on the dirty floor of the train station.  His wound was probed by a number of doctors, none of whom had taken the elementary step of washing their hands.  But they couldn't find the bullet.

And, in a twist you can not make up, Garfield's chief attending physician, who was considered an expert in ballistic trauma, was.....Bliss.  (his first name was Doctor.  No, you can't make this stuff up.)

Apparently, medicine had not progressed too much since the battlefield medical horrors of the Civil War. This would change with the assassination of Garfield.  Germ theory was eventually accepted.

But in the meantime, it was too late for former Civil War General James Garfield.

1 comment:

  1. Too true that they held a different belief system about infections back then. With today's health care, Garfield would have survived and written his memoirs. I wonder what beliefs we currently hold about health care and healthy living, that will be known to be absurd decades from now?

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