The Death of President George Washington

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The first President of the United States, George Washington, often called the “Father of Our Country”, was born on February 22, 1732. He grew to be a large man, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall, with broad shoulders, reddish hair and gray-blue eyes.

Historically painted as a robust, indomitable figure, during his lifetime Washington suffered from a myriad of health problems, including smallpox, diphtheria, and quinsy with recurring bouts of malaria, tuberculous pleurisy, and dysentery. Also afflicted with poor hearing, bad eyesight and well-known dental problems, many believe that Mr. Washington may have also been sterile.

Washington’s Final Illness

Despite all the health problems throughout his life, George Washington survived to the age of 67. He finally succumbed to what was probably another infection on December 14, 1799. Although the cause of death has never been proven, he was believed to have died from acute bacterial epiglottitis. This is an infection of the small tissue flap (the epiglottis) which plugs the entrance to the lungs when a person swallows.

Thanks to antibiotics, this problem is seldom seen in modern times. However, if not treated properly, it can quickly become fatal since a swollen epiglottis can stop air from flowing into the lungs.

Although Mr. Washington had been healthy just a few days earlier, on the 13th of December he had come down with a sore throat and hoarseness after helping dislodge a carriage stuck in the snow the day before. On Saturday, December 14th, between 2 and 3 a.m., he was sick enough to awaken his wife Martha but did not want doctors called at that time. By daylight, he could scarcely speak and was having much difficulty breathing so his doctors were summoned.

Treatment Options

Of his own volition, George was bled by an employee before the first doctor arrived. Upon the doctor’s arrival, George was bled again and at least one other time, although this final episode was apparently against George’s own wishes. According to modern doctors’ study of the case, it is believed that approximately 80 ounces of blood, which translates to a huge 35% of Washington’s entire blood supply, had been depleted by induced bleeding over a 12-hour period and probably sped up the patient’s demise.

One of Mr. Washington’s attending physicians, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, objected to the bleedings and instead wanted to perform a tracheotomy. However, with no anesthesia this certainly would have been a horrible procedure to attempt on the former President, and it was overruled by George’s senior physician, Dr. James Craik. For this type of illness today, a tracheotomy would be a simple lifesaving procedure that would most certainly be performed.

With few treatment options available other than external throat bathing and the inhalation of steam, George Washington finally passed away between 10 and 11 p.m. on Saturday, the 14th of December, 1799. Death was most likely from suffocation due to the enlargement of the epiglottis cutting off his airway and would have been a very harrowing experience.

George Washington’s Funeral

Four days later, with Martha watching from a second-story window of their Mt. Vernon home, an elaborate funeral with calvary, infantry, cannons, a riderless horse, music and hundreds of mourners was held, followed by the deceased’s interment in a brick crypt on the grounds of the estate.

After surviving so many lingering illnesses over his lifetime, Washington’s final infection and subsequent death came swiftly. Despite the best efforts of his three doctors, George Washington’s last sickness proved fatal in a mere two days’ time.