20th President James A. Garfield Cause of Death

20th President James A. Garfield Died Due to Infection 

 

"The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him," claims Charles Guiteau, the man who (allegedly) assassinated President James A. Garfield. 

In honor of today being the anniversary of President Garfield's death, we're talking history - something we don't normally do. He is listed as one of the four sitting presidents assassinated while in office, but, as indicated by his shooter, the cause of death is up for debate.

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was making his way to the New Jersey seashore for a family vacation when he was shot twice - one bullet grazed his arm, but the second entered in through his back and became stuck in his abdomen. There happened to be several doctors available at the scene who were eager to help and as a result, used their unwashed fingers and hands to try and retrieve the bullet immediately. While you may cringe upon reading that (I know I do), this was actually a common practice with gunshot wounds because back then it was thought that leaving the bullet inside the body cavity for too long could potentially lead to problems like nerve and organ damage, or "morbid poisoning." 

The weeks and months that followed were excruciating for President Garfield. What began as a 3-inch deep wound became a 20-inch long incision that started at his ribs and ended at his groin. It didn't take long for the surgical site to become infected with sepsis - an infection that eventually leads to complete organ failure of the entire body. If you want to know more, or to find out what happened to his shooter, take a look at this PBS article

It's difficult to say whether or not President Garfield would have survived had there been a sanitary approach to his care. For all we know, the bullet wound had done enough damage on its own - but what we know for sure is that it could have saved him from months of pain. During this time period, germ theory was a joke to most doctors. Luckily, that's not the case anymore. 

Hospitals now have strict protocols in place to ensure all medical personnel and their instruments are completely sanitized before performing any procedures on patients. The team and I at PhoneSoap are proud to say we have placed hundreds of units in hospitals and medical centers across the US that assist doctors and nurses in their efforts with delivering the best possible care.

 

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