We frequently hear the phrase “the miracles of modern medicine,” but we also often take for granted just how far medicine has come, not in a manner of millennia, but in a manner of only decades. When you look back at the sort of procedures and general lack of accurate medical knowledge you’d find in a hospital even one century ago, they start to look like a butcher shop that was legally allowed to administer opium more than an efficient medical purveyor. 19th century hospitals were probably a lot closer to Silent Hill than Scrubs. Though now I do kind of want to see Zach Braff making an awkward face while Turk saws off someone’s leg at the hip.

This wasn’t a question of access to care, either. Even the highest-profile victims, the kind that now would be airlifted away to be filled to the brim with the best stem cells medicine has to offer, were subject to the same blood-soaked educated guesswork. Sure, there’d be a lot more news coverage and much higher stakes, but even the best doctors still didn’t know they were supposed to wash their hands before they stuck them inside you. The only bright spot in the chop shop you were fighting for your life in is that pretty much any time they got stumped, they were going to give you a walloping dose of cocaine to the spine. Nice!

Perhaps one of the most flabbergasting cases of deep medical mistreatment comes from the 20th President of the United States, James Garfield. You may know James Garfield from bar trivia as the president that everyone forgets was assassinated. Though, the more you learn about the attempts to save him, the more it becomes apparent that the assassin's attempt may have only come to fruition when doctors tried to fix it. In fact, even though he’s listed as assassinated, historians are in pretty solid agreement that his actual cause of death was massive infection from stuff like having an entire team of doctors poking around inside his body for a whole summer without ever popping a glove on. Even more hilariously, the assassin himself argued the same thing at his trial, saying “the doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

Let’s start with the original wound, a gunshot delivered by assassin Charles J. Guiteau, who has exactly the kind of name you expect an assassin to have. He sounds like somebody that committed murder most foul on an overnight train. Guiteau shot Garfield twice, but the first bullet only grazed his arm. To be fair, a flesh wound probably still would have killed him when 1890s doctors told him to go home and wrap it in arsenic-soaked towels or whatever. 

Public Domain

Doctors! Quickly! The leeches!

The second bullet, however, did find center mass, entering through his back, going through his vertebrae, and coming to rest in Garfield’s left side. The bullet, however, never actually hit any vital organs or his actual spinal cord. I’m not even 100% sure that modern doctors would even bother removing it. The New York Times asked Dr. Ira Rutkow, professor of surgery and medical historian, about the wound, and he described it as: “such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter of two or three days.” In other words, as far as assassination attempts go, this was basically a best case scenario for the would-be-assassinated. Garfield was left with a single bullet wound and zero damaged vital organs. With that, he was turned over to an era of medical professionals that would probably kill most goldfish while trying to change their tank water.

For the receiving physicians, their first order of business was to locate the bullet and extract it, believing that bullets caused something suitably vaguely described as “morbid poisoning.” They went to work, without any anesthetic, one might add, utilizing the leading practice for bullet-finding of the time, known as “digital probing.” A grimly ironic name, since the meaning of the word “digital” nowadays almost always refers to pieces of modern technology, even naming the Digital Age, an era during which Garfield would have almost definitely have survived. However, one you remember that “digits” refer not just to numbers, but to fingers, you start to grasp the 19th century meaning. Yup, these doctors got together, said “time to heal this man,” and then shoved all of their deeply unsterilized fingers into the wound to try to find a bullet that was on the other side of his body.

filthy hand

Pixabay

The preferred medical instrument of 19th century doctors.

Sterilization and the X-Ray would both come into accepted use in the near-ish future, but just too late to not make the dying Garfield’s life a living hell. If you want further proof of how little damage the actual gunshot did, Garfield would live for another 2 MONTHS after the injury, even with doctors treating his wound like a sock puppet. 

Alexander Graham Bell even showed up with a metal detector of his own design to attempt to locate the bullet. It might have worked, if the doctor had told Bell the correct side of the body to scan. Bell waved his technology over the right side of Garfield’s body, where the lead physician told him the bullet was, to no avail, while the actual bullet nestled, snug as a bug, on the left side. Would probably have been easy to scan his whole body, but who was Bell to disagree with a medical professional? Anyways, back to trying to find a bullet with all the finesse of a toddler who dropped an M&M in a couch.

It was bad enough that the gunshot wound at this point was less sterile than a gas station take-a-penny, but that wasn’t the only hole the doctors were doing horrible things to. You see, the doctors were concerned that Garfield’s intestines might have been punctured by the bullet, and as such, all but forbade him from eating. Which feels like the closest to common sense we’ve gotten throughout this whole escapade. Unfortunately, as we said, he lived for 2 months, which you can’t do without sustenance. Understanding this, the doctors put their ill-informed heads together and prescribed, and I hate this as much as you do, “rectal feeding.” It’s exactly what you think it is. They shoved food up his ass. To be clear, as well, I do mean food. We’re not talking about suppositories, or any sort of medical concoction. We are talking about egg yolks, beef bouillon, milk, and, yes, bourbon. These guys were piping alcoholic versions of Rocky Balboa’s breakfast straight up Garfield’s exit.

Enema

Wellcome Images

I personally prefer a fork and knife for my meals.

Over 2 months after the assassination attempt on July 2, in the September of 1881, James Garfield died. Loudly. His last words were, “This pain, this pain.” Cause of death? Heart attack, a ruptured artery, and just like, massive full-body sepsis. The final stroke of black comedy would be if the physician had looked up from Garfield, 100 pounds lighter than when treatment started, with a gunshot wound that had now been expanded to an almost 2-foot-long incision, with beef bouillon leaking out of his ass, and told his wife “we did everything we could.”

Top Image: Public Domain

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