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A Medical Profile Of George Washington
Stalwart as he was, the general was often ill. A doctor studies his record and notes shortcomings in Eighteenth-Century medical care.
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
If one scans the diaries of Washington, one is astonished by his gloomy outlook each time he was stricken by serious illness, and his readiness to anticipate a fatal outcome. Washington’s apprehensions were well founded. Of his nine brothers, half brothers and sisters, two died in infancy, the other seven between the ages of thirteen and 64. George survived them all, as well as his two adopted children. How could he expect to outlive all his close relatives with the exception of his wile, Martha?
Sickness affects different people in different ways. Long periods of disease accompanied by disability, pain and danger, such as Washington had to endure, exert a profound influence in molding a character. They are times of trial which soften the weak and temper the strong. Long periods of physical disability gave Washington the time to find himself and his ideal. Self-control and patience are masks which are acquired by long and painful practice in suppressing the natural outbursts of emotion and impatience. The sickbed is the best school in which to learn patience.
It can be assumed that other qualities which the mature Washington exhibited, his courage and unyielding determination, were also conditioned by his medical history. A man who has repeatedly faced death when attacked by unknown diseases, encounters with a feeling of relief enemies whom he can see and understand. And Washington’s singleness of purpose may have derived its force from the store of energy dammed up by the frustrations of sickness.
We have no record that Washington was ever incapacitated all during the Revolutionary War. Even at Valley Forge there was not a day when Washington was not at his post. The continuous strain of his responsibility and the consciousness of his mission kept on stimulating his adrenal glands, raising his normal powers of endurance, resistance and immunity. Destiny kept alive and well the only man of his time who could lead the American Revolution to victory.
Washington remained free of any disabling disease until 1786. Then, following the conclusion of the war and his election to the Presidency, came a letdown and he fell ill once more with “ague and fever.” He was treated by Dr. James Craik, who had been his physician for the preceding 32 years and had become his close personal friend.
In 1786 Dr. Craik for the first time employed “the bark” on Washington for malaria with excellent results. “The bark” meant the bark of the Chinchona tree which had been used for 140 years against malaria in South America and southern Europe. It was given in the form of a powder, decoction or extract, and was one of the first specific remedies employed for any disease.
In the first year of his Presidency there developed what the doctors called “a malignant carbuncle” on Washington’s left hip, probably of staphylococcic origin. For several weeks he was desperately sick and septic. He was cared for by Dr. Samuel Bard, a wellknown New York physician, who watched over the patient for many days and nights.
Finally Dr. Bard summoned all his courage, incised the carbuncle and drained the pus, with immediate improvement. Washington was confined to the house for nearly six weeks. When he was able to go out, his coach had to be reconstructed to enable him to lie at full length.
In 1789 Washington went on an official visit to New England. In the outskirts of Boston he was delayed a considerable time in rain and stormy weather because the city and state authorities were unable to settle a dispute as to the etiquette of receiving the Chief of State, for which there was no precedent. As a result, Washington developed a bad cold with some inflammation of the eyes. Following this visit, an epidemic: of respiratory infections spread through the city, and the die-hard Loyalists of Boston promptly named it “The Washington Influenza.”
As the result of colds and the large doses of quinine taken for his malaria, Washington’s hearing noticeably deteriorated during the last decade of his life. The deafness made it difficult for him to carry on conversations at public affairs, and increased his native diffidence. Therefore he acquired a reputation of being cold and aloof in society.
Like every person with normal vision, after reaching middle age Washington had to wear glasses for reading. In those days, the wearing of glasses was just as unfashionable as has been the wearing of hearing aids up to quite recently. People were ashamed to wear glasses, considering them a humiliating disfigurement like a clubfoot or hunchback. Washington used his reading glasses only in the privacy of his family and among intimate friends.
In 1790 the Federal Government was removed from New York to Philadelphia. In the spring of the same year Washington was taken with an attack of pneumonia followed by a relapse which almost proved fatal. He wrote: “I have already within less than a year had two severe attacks, the last worse than the first. A third probably will put me to sleep with my fathers.”