Does anyone remember President Garfield? I didn’t either, but this book will take you to a period of history forgotten by most of us. It is 1880 and the times are exciting for science, medicine and politics. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Milliard is a great read about a remarkable man and a rich period of time. Garfield grew up in Ohio in poverty and had an amazing life. He became educated, was a general during the Civil War and was nominated against his wishes as the Republican nominee for President at the Republican Convention. He was a very reluctant president. “President for just four months, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau as he was about to board a train at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Severely wounded, Garfield lingered until September 19. The assassin was an unsuccessful lawyer, evangelist and insurance salesman, Guiteau believed Garfield owed him a position in the diplomatic corps, and felt the president’s decisions threatened to destroy the Republican Party. Guiteau was convicted of murder and hanged on June 30, 1882.” ( American History– Life & Death in the White House)
“The people rallied around their president even as his doctors failed him. The great Western explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell helped design America’s first air-conditioning system to relieve Garfield’s agony. Alexander Graham Bell worked tirelessly to invent a device that could locate the bullet, the foundation for the later X-ray machine (It failed when Dr. Bliss insisted Bell search only the wrong side of Garfield’s torso.) Two thousand people worked overnight to lay 3,200 feet of railroad track, so the president might be taken to a cottage on the Jersey Shore. When the engine couldn’t make the grade, hundreds of men stepped forward to push his train up the final hill”(New York Times Book Review by Kevin Baker, September 30, 2011).
There are a lot of facts to be learned from this era. The information that Garfield was killed from the repeated unsterilized probing’s of the wound and not the bullet is sad but speaks to medical ignorance in 1880. At the time, Dr. Lister was just making rounds to fellow medical colleagues about the importance of hand washing. I remember hearing the saying: “Ignorance is Bliss” as a child. The origin for this statement is from the era of this book…the implication is that Bliss who was President Garfield’s primary doctor, Dr. Bliss, stubbornly defended his ignorant medical practice. Thus, the quotation “Ignorance is (Dr.) Bliss” is now understood in the time it was coined. In many ways this book was a comfort because it recounts a difficult political time post civil war in the United States and in spite of it we survived as a nation. Sometimes during today’s political climate I wonder if we will survive but there is hope after reading Destiny of the Republic. Tracy’s 2 cents.