President Garfield’s Doctors: A Keystone Tragi-Comedy, Part 1

President Garfield After the Shooting

At Charles Guiteau’s trial, the deranged assassin admitted that he had shot the President, but “it was the doctors who killed him.”

Charles Guiteau was certifiably insane, but he wasn’t stupid. Just about everybody in the country was deriding the medical men who botched the care of the dying President

President James Garfield is Shot

James Garfield was a healthy, vigorous forty-nine-year old man in the peak of condition – but he needed a vacation. His first four months in office had been a stressful morass of patronage maneuvering. He had finally outmaneuvered his political enemies, and needed a rest. It was July 2, 1881, and he, along with members of his cabinet and their families, were going on a New England tour.

At the train station that fateful day, he was shot twice by the crazy Guiteau. One bullet was a superficial flesh wound in the arm; the other, more serious, penetrated his side. He collapsed to the floor, and the medical comedy-of-ineptitude began.

He would lie on the floor of the station waiting room for nearly an hour before someone thought to have a mattress pulled from a Pullman car for his comfort. The waiting room matron at least had the presence of mind to sit on the floor, cradling the President’s head in her lap.

Doctors had been immediately summoned, and the parade began. As soon as they reached the fallen President, they started their examination – and probing for the bullet through the gaping hole in Garfield’s side. This was done with their unwashed fingers – or an unsterile Nelaton probe. The latter was an instrument made popular during the Civil War. The probe had a porcelain end, to which a bullet could (and sometimes did) leave a mark, making it easier to locate. All the probing achieved, as it was later learned, was to forge a false channel in the President’s abdominal cavity where it would become a sinkhole of infection.

Garfield was in pain and shock symptoms had begun, but with remarkable common sense and judgment, it was he who insisted on being taken back to the White House. He even dictated a brief reassuring telegram to his wife, who was supposed to meet him en route.

Doctors Flock To the White House

News of Garfield’s assassination traveled faster than the speeding bullet, and even before the President was carried back to the White House, the telegraph wires had broadcasted the news to the entire country. By the time the stricken man was taken to his sickroom, an army of doctors was arriving to examine the patient and offer their expert diagnoses. They all meant well, of course, but now they could have the dubious distinction of being one of the President’s medical consultants. Most of them were of the opinion that the President would not last the night.

Once again it was James Garfield himself who had the common sense to call a halt to the situation. He was in terrible pain, and all the examinations and probing was making it worse. His temperature was rising. He was nauseous. He was vomiting. He finally appointed Dr. Willard Bliss, his childhood friend and Washington physician, to take charge of the case, select his own group of associates and dismiss the rest. While Garfield was wise enough to take control of the matter, his choice of Bliss could not have been worse.

Willard Bliss is In Charge

Willard Bliss was a mediocre doctor at best. Garfield selected him because they had known each other for a long time, and when he became President and needed a personal physician, it seemed a likely choice. Willard Bliss was no more than an adequate doctor – so long as nobody was sick or injured. Enamored by his old relationship with the President and his new-found prominence, he zealously and jealously guarded his purview. B

But the good doctor was also an egocentric man with an autocratic manner. He would systematically alienate just about everyone concerned. By the time Garfield finally expired, the jokes about “ignorance being bliss” were rampant in the newspapers.

Within a day of being named Doctor-in-Charge, Bliss appointed a “team” of physicians: Dr. Smith Townsend, who had been the first on the scene, Surgeon-General J.K. Barnes who had been at the bedside of the dying Lincoln, and Doctors J.J. Woodward and Robert Reyburn. Each was assigned a specific responsibility. Dr. Townsend had the minimal duty of taking the President’s temperature, pulse and respiration three times a day.

Media Coverage of President Garfield’s Health

The health of the President of the United States had never been public prior to 1881. If a President was ill (and many of the early ones were ill from time to time during their administrations), it was kept from the newspapers.

But the convergence of a medical “team” was news. The team would be augmented by Doctors Agnew and Hamilton from Philadelphia and New York, respectively. The latter two were considered the finest in the country, and would have no comment (which is comment enough) about the dictatorial Dr. Bliss.

Naturally the public at large was anxious for President Garfield’s health, and even more importantly, was insatiable in its demand for up-to-the-minute news. Reporters hounded Joseph Brown, the President’s secretary, so he devised a little chart which he released to the press three times a day – listing Dr. Townsend’s contribution: the patient’s temperature, pulse and respiration rates. Occasionally the country would be treated to a special bulletin regarding Garfield’s bowel movements. Nothing was sacred.

Continual Misdiagnosis

From the very beginning, when the doctors said Garfield would not make the night, they were wrong. He lived for ten weeks, despite them. They probed for a bullet they could not find, and decided that it was located about twelve inches from where it would eventually be found. They also determined that it had affected his liver. It had not.

It would be a long, very hot summer for the dying President.


  1. Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  2. Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
  3. Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978