Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

By Candice Millard

Doubleday (2011)

This fascinating book focuses on the intersection between politics and science in 19th century America. President James Garfield’s death was caused by what we today would call medical malpractice, not by the bullet from the gun of assassin Charles Guiteau. In 1876, as Garfield was attending the Centennial Exhibition, a British physician, Joseph Lister, was speaking at the Medical Congress in an adjacent building, attempting to convince his colleagues of the importance of anti-sepsis, a sterilization process used to kill germs that he had shown prevented infection after surgery. This discovery had become accepted on the Continent, but American doctors were loath to abandon their practices for a complicated new approach to medicine. Lister was subsequently to be knighted for his discovery and Garfield would die, most likely because the anti-sepsis process was not then in use.
Another scientist at the exhibition, Alexander Graham Bell, was to
also play a role in Garfield’s death struggle. After his successful presentation of the telephone there in 1876, his reputation became pre-eminent. As Garfield declined from his wound, the consulting physician, Dr. Willard Bliss, contacted Bell to see if he could locate the bullet that was lodged in Garfield’s chest. Bell worked night and
day to develop a magnetic process that was strong enough and portable enough to do the job. While he failed to develop it in time to save Garfield, his induction balance process subsequently saved lives at home and in the field of battle during World War I.

Anyone who read and enjoyed The Devil in the White City will relish this book for the way that intersecting lives affect each other. Garfield was a very bright young man who had in determination, good nature and kindness what he lacked in opportunity. He rose from being a scholarship student to a teacher at Hiram College and from there launched his political career. Probably the only elected American president who did not actively seek the office. In his few months there, Garfield was recognized as a man who was fair, clear of vision and determined to rid the country of a poisonous patronage system. This book sets Garfield’s remarkable life within the social, scientific and political context of his age.

~ Tricia Herban

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