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The Death Of A Hero
Mortally ill as his century dwindled to its close, Washington was helped to his grave by physicians who clung to typical eighteenth-century remedies. But he died as nobly as he had lived
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Between two and three in the morning, Washington awoke Martha to say that he had suffered an ague and was feeling extremely unwell. Observing that he could scarcely speak and was breathing with difficulty, Martha was alarmed. She wished to summon a servant, but Washington would not let her do so, lest by getting out of bed she should catch cold. It seems to have been at this point that the hero decided that he was going to die. As two of his physicians later put it, “He was fully impressed at the beginning of his complaint… that its conclusion would be mortal; submitting to the several exertions made for his recovery, rather as a duty, than from any expectation of their efficacy.”
At daybreak a maid came to make the fire. She was sent to get an overseer named Rawlins, who commonly ministered to sick slaves: Washington wished to be bled before the doctor (who had also been sent for) could get there. Lear was awakened. “A mixture of Molasses, Vinegar & butter was prepared, to try its effect in the throat; but he could not swallow a drop, whenever he attempted it he appeared to be distressed, convulsed and almost suffocated.”
The sun was up by the time the overseer appeared. He had brought his lancet, but he was white and trembling. Washington bared his arm and, speaking with difficulty, said, “Don’t be afraid.” The incision having been made and the blood running pretty freely, Washington observed, “The orifice is not large enough.”
At this, Martha, who was not sure that her husband was prescribing the right treatment, begged that too much blood should not be taken. She appealed to Lear “to stop it.” Lear tried to intervene, but the General put out his hand in an arresting gesture. As soon as he could speak, he said, “More!” However, Martha continued to plead, and the bleeding was stopped after half a pint had been taken. While Lear applied various poultices and soaked Washington’s feet in warm water, Martha sent for a second doctor.
The first physician to arrive was Dr. James Craik, an elderly Scot who had been Washington’s neighbor and close friend since they had served together during Washington’s first campaign in the French and Indian War. He used Spanish fly to draw blood into a blister directly from Washington’s throat; he also took more blood from Washington’s arm. The patient obediently tried to use a gargle of sage tea and vinegar, but the only result was that he was again almost suffocated. Craik urged him to cough. He tried, but could not do so. Craik sent for a third doctor and bled the general for a third time. “No effect however was produced by it, and he continued in the same state, unable to swallow anything.”
Between three and four in the afternoon, two horsemen galloped separately up the driveway to Mount Vernon: Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick of Alexandria and Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown of Port Tobacco. Recollections become a little contradictory at this point, but it seems that the two new physicians each in turn examined Washington. Then the three doctors withdrew for a conference.
The facts on the conference are more precise. Drs. Craik and Brown agreed on the diagnosis of quinsy (an extreme form of tonsillitis) and urged further debilitating treatment—more bleeding and blisters and also catharsis. Dr. Dick, who at thirty-seven was by far the youngest of the three, argued that Washington was suffering from “a violent inflammation of the membranes of the throat, which it had almost closed, and which, if not immediately arrested, would result in death.” He urged an operation that would open the trachea below the infection so Washington could breathe.
At first Craik seemed convinced, but Brown persuaded him that the operation might he fatal. Suspecting that his colleagues were afraid to assume such responsibility in the case of a patient so famous, Dick said that he would take all blame for failure on himself. Still Craik and Brown would not agree. Then Dick urged that the patient not be bled again. Although he accepted the therapeutic efficacy of bleeding, he felt that this remedy should be applied to the elderly only sparingly. Concerning Washington, he said, “He needs all his strength—bleeding will diminish it.”
Later, after he had had time to think calmly, Craik wrote Brown that they should have listened to Dick. Had they “taken no more blood from him, our good friend might have been alive now. But we were governed by the best light we had; we thought we were right, and so we are justified.” (Down the years doctors have speculated on the nature of Washington’s illness. One guess is diphtheria, another a virulent streptococcus infection of the throat. Either disease would, in the state of medicine at that time, have been fatal regardless of the treatment prescribed.)
As a result of the doctors’ despairing conference, Washington was bled for the fourth time: ”… the blood ran very slowly—appeared very thick,” but the operation “did not produce any symptoms of fainting.” When, toward four in the afternoon, Washington proved able to swallow a little, the doctors took advantage of this situation by giving him calomel and other purges.