Tomorrow, December 14, will be the 218th anniversary of the death of America’s first president, George Washington, at age 67. Most Americans know that the Father of our Country was also a military general without which the United States never would have gained independence, and those who remember their social studies classes will hopefully recall that his tenure as president set the standard for chief executives being understood as public servants rather than monarchs.
There’s much more to Washington’s life and example, of course, and even history buffs and political junkies might not be aware of the grim, remarkable details of the very end of his time on earth.
In 2014, Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan wrote a piece for PBS NewsHour detailing the rapid onset of the illness that claimed Washington’s life, as well as the “excruciating” nature of the attempts to treat him.
It all started the day before at his Mount Vernon estate, when the retired general and president began to experience coughing, a runny nose, and hoarseness in his voice as a result of spending the day in harsh winter weather and declining to change into dry clothes for dinner for fear of being tardy.
At 2 AM the next morning, Washington’s condition had woken him up with “profound shortness of breath” with a “pronounced fever” following a few hours later, leading to the fetching of his 40-year physician, Dr. James Craik.
The details of Washington’s treatment are not for the faint of heart; they involve the uneasy, obsolete medical practice of bloodletting:
At 7:30 a.m., [Mount Vernon overseer George] Rawlins removed 12 to 14 ounces of blood, after which Washington requested that he remove still more. Following the procedure, Col. Lear gave the patient a tonic of molasses, butter and vinegar, which nearly choked Washington to death, so inflamed were the beefy-red tissues of his infected throat […]
Dr. Craik entered Washington’s bedchamber at 9 a.m. After taking the medical history, he applied a painful “blister of cantharides,” better known as “Spanish fly,” to Washington’s throat. The idea behind this tortuous treatment was based on a humoral notion of medicine dating back to antiquity called “counter-irritation.” The blisters raised by this toxic stuff would supposedly draw out the deadly humors causing the General’s throat inflammation.
At 9:30 a.m., another bloodletting of 18 ounces was performed followed by a similar withdrawal at 11 a.m. At noon, an enema was administered. Attempts at gargling with a sage tea, laced with vinegar were unsuccessful but Washington was still strong enough to walk about his bedroom for a bit and to sit upright in an easy chair for a few hours. His real challenge was breathing once he returned to lying flat on his back in bed.
Two more rounds of bloodletting were attempted afterward, with the fourth helping him a bit — but it didn’t last. Incredibly, to the agonizing end, Washington was the personification of dignity:
He told Dr. Craik: “Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long.” Ever the gentleman, even in extremis, the General made a point of thanking all three doctors for their help […]
At 10 p.m., Washington murmured some last words about burial instructions to Col. Lear. Twenty minutes later, Col. Lears’ notes record, the former president settled back in his bed and calmly took his pulse. At the very end, Washington’s fingers dropped off his wrist and the first president of our great Republic took his final breath.
Multiple physicians intensely debated Washington’s cause of death at the time, and whether alternative procedures could have saved his life, and in fact modern medicine isn’t even entirely sure today, though according to Markel, “acute bacterial epiglottitis seems most likely.”
It’s definitely ugly to think about how painful and harrowing that death must have been, but it’s comforting to think that if anyone went on to claim his heavenly reward of eternal peace, it would be the man to whom we owe so much.