Conversations: Presidents, Public Health, and Pre-antiseptic Medicine

CONVERSATIONS: Presidents, Public Health, and Pre-antiseptic Medicine
Thursday, Sept 15th, 6:00 PM [REGISTER]
Discussion Partner:  
Eric Rivet Western Reserve Historical Society Curator of Collections and Exhibits and Scott Frank, MD, MS, Director, Master of Public Health Program, CWRU and Director, Shaker Heights Health Department
Where: Dittrick Museum/Allen Library Powell Reading Room

ffBefore the 1870s, doctors could not agree about what caused disease and accidentally introduced infection. President James A. Garfield’s death provides one tragic example. After Charles Guiteau shot the president, doctors prodded the wound with unsterilized hands and instruments, introducing sepsis. Even Guiteau claimed that while he shot the president, the doctors killed him. Garfield’s tomb stands in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery, a testament to the perils of pre-antiseptic surgery. But at the same time, the president’s terrible sacrifice brought media attention to the antiseptic debate!

On July 2, 1881, four months into his presidency, Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled petitioner for a federal job, shot President Garfield twice. One bullet apparently lodged near his spine, and upon the recommendation of President Lincoln’s son, Garfield was treated by doctor Willard Bliss, who probed the abdominal wound with his fingers but found no bullet. Bliss had no respect for Joseph Lister’s antiseptic techniques, even though he knew about them—he even ridiculed him! However, the aftermath of President Garfield’s assassination (and it’s headlines) offered a compelling public health anecdote that helped promote the germ theory of disease.