Recently, I watched an episode of PBS’s American Experience entitled “Murder of a President” about the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. Garfield died of what today would have been a survivable bullet wound. It wasn’t the bullet which killed him; it was hemorrhage and massive infection.
In fact, it was quite possibly his medical care that killed him. According to PBS, “most doctors did not yet believe in germ theory, and Garfield’s wound was never cleaned. Instead, it was repeatedly probed by [Dr. Willard] Bliss’ fingers and other unsterile tools as Bliss searched for the bullet in the president’s body. Soon, infection set in.”
Other treatments administered by Bliss included serving Garfield brandy, rich foods and morphine. Not surprisingly, Garfield vomited his meals. Bliss decided to feed the president rectally – a diet that included opium, milk, egg yolks and beef bouillon.
Eventually, Garfield became feverish and his wound developed pus which the doctor removed, inadvertently sending the infection through Garfield’s body and making the situation worse.
Germ theory recognizes that some diseases are caused by microorganisms. Before germ theory was proposed, doctors believed diseases were caused by bad air.
Beginning in the 16th century, however, some scientists began to put forth the theory that something living yet unseen by the human eye was the cause of disease. It wasn’t until the 19th century that science was able to advance enough to prove these theories correct.
In Austria, obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis observed that women who gave birth with the assistance of a midwife had lower incidents of childbed fever than those who gave birth under a doctor’s care. He discovered the doctors were going straight from autopsies to births without handwashing. Once strict handwashing measures were put into place, the rates of childbed fever dropped dramatically.
In London, Dr. John Snow developed the science of epidemiology as he found the source of a cholera outbreak was a contaminated well.
Other doctors experimented with growing and identifying organisms.
Joseph Lister, a surgeon, took germ theory a step further and developed a means for the sterilization of wounds and medical instruments using carbolic acid.
Prior to this, surgeons did not wash their hands between surgeries and took pride in wearing stained garments.
Lister discovered that carbolic acid prevented wounds from developing infection. Beginning in 1867, he began advocating the serialization of operating rooms and instruments, that surgeons wear gloves and that medical instruments should not be made of porous materials.
Lister would die in 1912, but his techniques would save countless lives during World War One.
Did you know Listerine is named after Dr. Lister? Leave a comment below.
Enjoyed reading this post? Join the mailing list and receive updates in your inbox whenever a new post is published. Simply enter your email address in the form on the bottom right of this page.