Murder of a President and Dr. Lister: The Battle over Germ Theory

Dr. Joseph Lister

Murder of a President and Dr. Lister: The Battle over Germ Theory

A sketch of James Garfield in his coffin
A sketch of James Garfield in his coffin

PBS’s excellent series American Experience has an episode entitled “Murder of a President” about the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. Garfield died of what today would be a survivable bullet wound. The bullet didn’t kill him; it was hemorrhage and massive infection.   (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)

In fact, it is quite possible his medical care 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 Bliss administered 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.  When Bliss removed the puss, he inadvertently sent the infection through Garfield’s body, making the situation worse.

Germ Theory

Carbolic acid is applied to a patient during surgery
Carbolic acid is applied to a patient during surgery

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 causing disease. It wasn’t until the 19th century that science was able to prove these theories correct.

Austrian 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 when he discovered the source of a cholera outbreak was a contaminated well.

Other doctors experimented with growing and identifying organisms.

Dr. Lister

Dr. Joseph Lister
Dr. Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister, a surgeon, took germ theory a step further and developed a means of sterilizing wounds and medical instruments using carbolic acid.

Lister discovered that carbolic acid prevented wounds from developing infection. Beginning in 1867, he advocated the serialization of operating rooms and instruments, surgeons wearing gloves and that medical instruments should not be made of porous materials.

Prior to Lister’s campaign, surgeons did not wash their hands between surgeries and took pride in wearing bloodstained garments.

Lister died in 1912, but his techniques would save countless lives during World War I.

The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga
The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga: Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year

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Updated: 22 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Melina Druga is a multi-genre author with a lifelong love of history, books and the English language. She pens historical fiction, chick lit and nonfiction.
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