Dec. 14, 1799: The excruciating final hours of President George Washington

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tags: George Washington



Dr. Howard Markel writes a monthly column for the PBS NewsHour, highlighting the anniversary of a momentous event that continues to shape modern medicine. He is the director of the Center for the History of Medicine and the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. 

It was a house call no physician would relish. On Dec. 14, 1799, three doctors were summoned to Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, Va., to attend to a critically ill, 67-year-old man who happened to be known as “the father of our country.”

On the afternoon of Dec. 13, a little more than 30 months into his retirement, George Washington complained about a cough, a runny nose and a distinct hoarseness of voice. He had spent most of the day on horseback in the frigid rain, snow and hail, supervising activities on his estate. Late for dinner and proud of his punctuality, Washington remained in his damp clothes throughout the meal.


By 2 a.m. the following morning, Washington awoke clutching his chest with a profound shortness of breath. His wife Martha wanted to seek help but Washington was more concerned about her health as she had only recently recovered from a cold herself. Washington simply did not want her leaving the fire-warmed bedroom for the damp, cold outside. Nevertheless, Martha asked her husband’s chief aide, Col. Tobias Lear, to come into the room. Seeing how ill the general was, Col. Tobias immediately sent for Dr. James Craik, who had been Washington’s physician for more than 40 years, and the estate’s overseer, George Rawlins, who was well practiced in the art of bloodletting.

Only a few hours later, 6 a.m., Washington developed a pronounced fever. His throat was raw with pain and his breathing became even more labored.

At 7:30 a.m., Rawlins removed 12 to 14 ounces of blood, after which Washington requested that he remove still more. Following the procedure, Col. Lear gave the patient a tonic of molasses, butter and vinegar, which nearly choked Washington to death, so inflamed were the beefy-red tissues of his infected throat...




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