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Friday, March 14, 2014

Did You Know? Part 2- The Bed That Might Have Killed a President

     On July 2nd, 1881 President James A. Garfield was shot with a British 442 caliber Bulldog type revolver by a man named Charles Guiteau. It had only been 16 years since the first president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Fords Theater. Ironically, Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln(now secretary of war) was accompanying the president when he was shot in the back twice by Guiteau. What is interesting about this assassination was that the President, being strong, lived on for 11 weeks before succumbing to his wounds. And that is where the story gets interesting, because had a few interesting turns of events gone differently, he would have likely survived.

     When he was initially shot, the president's doctors assumed he would not live through the night, but indeed he did pull through and had one of the two bullets removed. The other could not be located. This is where a man known for his invention of the telephone comes into the story. As the president lingered and his condition fluctuated, his doctors probed the wound but could not find the bullet. They, not knowing of anti septic measures used dirty instruments and even their unwashed fingers looking for the bullet. One doctor even pierced the president's liver looking for it. Lost, they contacted Alexander Graham Bell, the man that had invented the telephone just four years earlier. They asked him if he could rush to find a technological way to located the missing bullet in the president's body that would not be invasive as the president started to weaken from malnutrition(he could barely eat and then only liquids). Astonishingly, Bell was able to rush into existence the worlds first metal detector prototype in short order after experiments in his lab showed the device worked flawlessly.

    However when Bell rushed to the White House the device registered inconsistent readings and static. Bell fought with the doctors to move the president to a bed that did not have a metal frame as he hypothesized the frame may be interfering with the detector. However, what most likely caused the issue was that the president had one of the latest beds available, one with metal springs, which several accounts attribute to the failure to find the lost bullet. But since the doctors never moved Garfield to an old fashioned bed, the device was a failure that may have succeeded in saving the president.

    The assassin's bullet also was the cause for another technological first, the air conditioner. If you have ever been to Washington D.C. in the summer you know it can get rather hot. Worried the heat would exacerbate the president's slowly deteriorating condition, his men created a large icebox and used a fan to blow across it like a cold radiator. The device did work and lowered the temperature of the bedroom by up to 20 degrees on hot days. Indeed it did succeed in keeping the president comfortable in regards to temperature, however the constant probing of the wound had lead to blood poisoning and the attempts to combat the malnutrition with enemas made the president suffer. He finally died after 11 weeks of lingering. An autopsy found his body was filled with pus and he had lost over 70 pounds. The missing bullet was found, having traveled the complete opposite way the doctors probed, and all their probing created an alternate wound channel that just festered worse than the one left by the bullet.

   So you can thank the invention of metal detectors and the idea of air conditioning to this event. You can also see that we are quite fortunate to live in a time when doctors sterilize instruments, wash their hands, and know what they are doing if you are injured. Bad doctors killed or helped kill many good and powerful men in the 19th century. George Washington, Zachary Taylor, and Garfield were all presidents killed by bad medicine or lack of what we consider basic medical knowledge today.





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