In 1799, George Washington was relaxing in retirement on his estate when he was suddenly struck down by a mystery illness. Woken in the early hours of the morning by his inability to breathe, Washington sent for doctors and his secretary. Just days later he was dead. But, was this due to his rare throat infection or did his doctors aid his death through their now-outdated medical techniques? This article will run you through the various treatments that the Founding Fathers doctors used to try and save his life.
Medical History of the Founding Father George Washington
As much as people would like to believe that President George Washington was the strong and stalwart character presented in his portraits, the man was afflicted by numerous diseases. He managed to survive smallpox, malaria, abscesses, tuberculosis, and even dysentery. His mother is known to have suffered from tuberculosis. And yet George Washington managed to survive.
- 160-Year-Old Japanese Medical Kit Contained Deadly Laxative
- Drilling Holes in the Skull was Never a Migraine Cure
Throughout his life, George Washington was plagued with arthritis, pneumonia and in 1787 was described as having a rheumatic-like condition whereby he could not raise his arms. This was coupled with cramps, fevers, and chills. His contemporaries recorded their fear that he would die before leading them through the revolution. Yet, despite all of this, he lived until the ripe old age of 67.
Medical Humors, Bloodletting and the Dreaded Scarificator
Before the technological advancements in the medical profession, doctors in the 18th century still practiced using techniques developed in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates, a 5th century BC doctor and philosopher, developed the theory of humors. The body was dictated by four distinct groups or humors, or bodily fluids, that had to remain in balance. These were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These were kept in check using a variety of techniques including bloodletting.
Bloodletting was one of the techniques utilized by Washington’s doctors to save him. It was a common practice and believed to be a way in which to lead a healthy lifestyle. In the 18th century it was usual for doctors to use instruments such as the spring-loaded lancet and the scarificator, a dreadful medical tool which had 12 shallow blades that were released to cut the patient’s arm. This allowed for a more even spread of cuts and made bloodletting easier.
Astoundingly, it is thought that George Washington had about 40% of his blood drained during his illness. Even more remarkable is that the physicians attending to George Washington disagreed about the best way to proceed. Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick expressed concern that further bleeding would further weaken Washington and possibly kill him. Nevertheless, the leading physician, a Dr. James Craik, chose to proceed anyway and continued to drain blood. Modern medical experts have settled that this practice could have contributed to his demise.
Using Blisters to Spark the Healing Process
Blistering was another common treatment in the 18th century. The idea was that to get rid of a malady, a blister was required to generate minor damage to the part of the body with the issue, sparking the body to begin the healing process. To achieve this result, blistering was created by using a fine powder made from beetles or Spanish Fly, along with other stimulants like pepper and mustard seed. The blister was then snipped to drain out the fluid.
George Washington had this done on his throat but saw no benefits. In fact, it may have even worsened his condition. He was already struggling with an inflamed throat and was unable to swallow simple tonics. By inflaming and blistering his throat further, his doctors likely made things worse. It is clear by this point that the doctors were becoming increasingly desperate, as they continued letting blood from their patient.
Medicinal Draughts and Bizarre Concoctions
Medicinal draughts were a particular staple in any doctor’s repertoire during the era. From ancient times, tonics, draughts and potions had been created to help patients with all kinds of ailments. Even in the early 17th century, strange concoctions were being created to fight off various diseases. Ingredients could include everything from the penises of bulls, discarded nail clippings, powdered mummy, and even lion fat.
Fortunately, by the end of the 18th century, draughts and tonics had begun to look a lot more like modern medicine, and were created using herbs and vinegar. George Washington was given numerous draughts and concoctions to drink in an attempt to ease his throat. One that was noted was a mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter to ease the swelling in his throat. He was also prescribed gargling a mixture of vinegar and sage tea, but this nearly suffocated him. This was again a common practice which failed to yield results.
Was the Death of George Washington Caused by Medical Malpractice?
Judging 18th-century doctors by our modern-day standards of malpractice is a little harsh. If we look at the context of the treatments used on George Washington, it seems like his doctors used all their usual tools. There were some debates about the level of blood that should be drained, but that is about as far as it goes. Modern medical practitioners have questioned why none of the doctors used a tracheotomy, which would be the modern treatment for George Washington’s symptoms. However, this was a relatively new treatment and there was no guarantee that it would work.
- Goop: A Classicist’s Take on the ‘Power’ of Ancient Remedies
- Before Epidemiologists Began Modeling Disease, It Was the Job of Astrologers
All of Washington’s symptoms were coupled with a family history of respiratory disease and an inability to diagnose the problem. In this situation his physicians were always going to struggle to save the first American president. The doctors of George Washington may have drained more of his blood than necessary, which might have led to his body being weakened so much that he died. However, it appears that they did all they could to save him. It would be unfair to judge them too harshly for their efforts. They were victims of ignorance during a time before antibiotics and penicillin.
Top image: An illustration of Washington’s imagined deathbed scene, painted about 50 years after his death. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Kurt Readman
Brown, J. 2014. “Bloodletting and blisters: Solving the medical mystery of George Washington’s death” in PBS NewsHour. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/bloodletting-blisters-solving-medical-mystery-george-washingtons-death
Cohen, J. 2018. “A brief history of bloodletting” in History. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bloodletting#:~:text=Bloodletting%20as%20a%20medical%20procedure,uniform%20set%20of%20parallel%20cuts.
Curfman, D. R. 2021. “The Medical History of the Father of our Country – General George Washington” in The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America. Available at: https://www.founderspatriots.org/articles/gw_medical_history.php
Eschner, K. 2017. “George Washington’s Hard Death Shows the Limits of Medicine in His Time” in Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/george-washingtons-hard-death-shows-limits-medicine-his-time-180967531/
Ford, G. 2015. “Phlebotomy: The Ancient Art of Bloodletting” in Museum of Quackery. Available at: http://www.museumofquackery.com/devices/phlebo.htm
Greenstone, G. 2010. “The History of Bloodletting” in BC Medical Journal. Available at: https://bcmj.org/premise/history-bloodletting
Morris, T. 2019. “Weird and Wonderful Medicine in 17th and 18th Century England” in Historic UK. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Weird-Wonderful-17th-18th-Century-Medicine/
Patrick, J. 2021. “George Washington’s Health” in George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Available at: https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/health/
Walton, G. 2015. “Medical Blistering in the Georgian Era” in Geri Walton. Available at: https://www.geriwalton.com/medical-blistering-in-georgian-era/