Historical Medical Mistakes You Won’t Believe: Death of a President

We often discuss on our blog how patients affected by modern medical mistakes can be killed or left permanently disabled. Historical medical mistakes led to identical outcomes for patients. In some cases, historical medical mistakes had world-changing implications.

Throughout the next several months, we are going to walk you through several examples of medical mistakes that changed world history. As you read the examples, keep in mind that these mistakes were preventable.

Did Medical Malpractice Kill President James Garfield?

Historians consider James Garfield to be one of the most talented and intelligent presidents to ever reside in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, Garfield was only President of the United States for four months.

Born into poverty and raised without a father, Garfield represented the caricature of a ‘self-made man’. At 20 years old, Garfield worked his way through college and graduated within five years. Garfield also served in the Union Army during the Civil War, the Ohio Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming President of the United States.

As President of the United States, Garfield had an unusual open door policy with his constituents. This policy would eventually lead to his death. Hundreds of office-seeking constituents regularly met with President Garfield to ask for political appointments. Among these office-seekers was Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled and delusional attorney who wanted to be assigned as a diplomat to France.

President Garfield rejected Guiteau for the position. Shortly afterwards, Guiteau confronted Garfield and members of his Cabinet at Washington’s D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station. Guiteau fired two shots from his revolver at Garfield. One bullet struck Garfield’s back and the other grazed his arm.

Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (his first name was Doctor!) was tasked with finding and removing the bullet from Garfield’s abdomen. Back in the 1880s, some American doctors did not believe in bacteria (even though there was evidence to prove it existed). Shortly after Garfield was shot, physicians dug their fingers and hands into the entry wound in a misguided attempt to locate and extract the bullet. Doctors had also neglected to use recently invented surgical procedures that utilized antiseptics. These mistakes proved to be fatal.

President Garfield’s body became overwhelmed with bacterial infections as he lay dying in the White House bedroom. Over a period of 80 days, Garfield became deathly ill. His weight dropped from 210 to 130 pounds! Doctors grew desperate in their attempts to find the bullet lodged in President Garfield’s abdomen. At one point, Dr. Bliss called in Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone) to use a metal detector so physicians could find the bullet. However, President Garfield was undergoing treatment on a bed with metal springs. As a result, Bell’s detector showed Garfield’s body was riddled with metal. Dr. Bliss had also told Bell to only use the detector on the left side of Garfield’s body, where he suspected the bullet became lodged. The bullet was located behind the pancreas on the right side of Garfield’s body.

Due to a series of medical mistakes, President James A. Garfield died on September 19th, 1881. The man who might have become one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history died as a result of medical malpractice. Historians argue that President Garfield would have survived if doctors had simply left him alone. As it turns out, the bullet had missed vital organs, and historians are most likely correct.


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