“If I can’t save him, no one can,” stated the overconfident Dr. Willard Bliss after the July 2, 1881 shooting of President James A. Garfield. What drove Dr. Bliss to decide that he was the only one who could save the president? What drives anyone to believe they stand above everyone else? Why didn’t he consult with the leading surgeons of the time? How did he manage to position himself above other doctors who had more knowledge and connections with the Garfield family? It is not my purpose to determine if Dr. Bliss was negligent in his service to President Garfield; history has already determined that. He believed in his abilities above all else, and positioned himself within the situation to be in control.
Doctor (his actual first name!) Willard Bliss grew up not far from James Garfield , and the two appear to have known one another as youngsters. Bliss graduated from the Cleveland Medical College in 1849 or 1850, then married and moved to the Grand Rapids, Michigan area where he joined the local medical community.
At the start of the Civil War in April 1861, Dr. Bliss offered his services to the Union cause. He was assigned as regimental surgeon of the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry. After the first battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Bliss and his brother Dr. Z.E. Bliss received a letter of praise from the staff of the 3rd Michigan for their actions during the battle. In May 1862, Willard Bliss was placed in charge of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C., a large facility with over 1,000 beds. Armory Square Hospital received some of the most severely injured soldiers from the many bloody battles in Virginia. Bliss served the rest of the war in this position.
There is no clear record of Bliss having treated President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. It appears that Bliss’s presence at the Petersen House (across the street from Ford’s Theater and where Lincoln was carried after he was shot) was requested by Dr. Charles Leale, one of the first doctors on the scene after the shooting. In his post-assassination reports, Dr. Leale wrote that he “sent for the Surgeon General, J.K. Barnes, the family physician Robert K. Stone and the Commander of the Armory Square Hospital, D.W. Bliss.” Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s eldest son, may have actually met Dr. Bliss at his father’s deathbed.
How did Bliss position himself above everyone else after President Garfield’s shooting sixteen years later, in July 1881? Dr. Smith Townsend was the first doctor to arrive on the scene after the shooting, followed by Dr. Charles Purvis. While these doctors were treating the President, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, just forty or so feet away from Garfield when assassin Charles Guiteau attacked, called for Dr. Bliss. Historical evidence suggests Robert Todd Lincoln also knew of the childhood connection between Garfield and Bliss. Whether it was that connection or his service at the Armory and at Lincoln’s deathbed that led him to call for Bliss, Robert Lincoln’s decision would have lasting effects on history.
Was Bliss the best doctor for the job? The end result suggests not, but judging the outcome based on twenty-first century medical standards is hardly fair.
As soon as Dr. Bliss arrived on the scene at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station just minutes after the shooting, he took charge-not a surprise based on his position and prior military experience. He continued to insist on his own medical preeminence after the President was moved to the White House.
There were many factors involved in him becoming the President’s primary physician. First, he was called to the scene by Lincoln. Robert Todd Lincoln made this decision because he knew Dr. Bliss. Once at the White House, Dr. Bliss refused to allow anyone to see the President without his approval–including the Garfield family physician. He carefully chose with whom he would consult, mostly doctors who agreed with him about the case. He “fired” all the other doctors who had been assisting, telling them that their services were no longer needed or relegating them to nursing duties. He did this in the name of the President. In fact, neither James Garfield nor any member of his family ever requested that Bliss be the primary physician.
Dr. Bliss’s excising of the other physicians from the case carefully removed anyone questioning his authority. Despite Bliss’s objection, First Lady Lucretia Garfield did manage to bring in two doctors she trusted to try to aid in the President’s care. These were Dr. Susan Edson and Dr. Silas Boynton (the President’s own cousin), both of whom stayed at the President’s side even as Dr. Bliss ignored them and refused to listen to their medical opinions about President Garfield’s condition and care.
Throughout this period, the painful probing of Garfield’s wound with unwashed fingers and instruments continued, even as the President became noticeable weaker on many days. Despite his patient’s failing health, Dr. Bliss’s arrogance continued to grow. The procedures that Dr. Townsend—the first doctor on the scene–had used (unsterilized equipment and dirty hands) were common in the United States during this period. Many American doctors of the day failed to believe in the unseen germs that Joseph Lister had proven were present. The fact that “80% of operations (were) plagued by hospital gangrene and a nearly 50% mortality rate” had little effect on Bliss’s thinking or treatment. Doctors continued to unnecessarily probe the wound until “his initial wound, a 3 inch deep harmless wound, was turned into a 20 inch long contaminated wound oozing more pus each day.” It was infection introduced by Bliss and other doctors that killed the President on September 19, 1881, 80 days after the shooting.
Did other doctors think Bliss was the best surgeon for the job of treating President Garfield? Certainly Edson and Boynton did not, and there were others that tried to speak up but to no avail. What is clear is that Bliss’s arrogance played a significant role–and was perhaps the deciding factor– in the President’s demise.
Even Garfield’s autopsy was viewed by some as a cover up, with medical statements about his death that were not true. The original cause of death was listed as rupturing of a blood vessel injured by the gunshot. In fact, his death was caused by a heart attack resulting from the infection introduced by his doctors. This autopsy should have been an independent investigation into the cause of death, but many of the doctors present had attended to the wounded president–including Bliss, which surely skewed the outcome. This would hide the poor treatment Garfield received from his doctors.
Charles Guiteau, the president’s mentally disturbed assassin, stated on the opening day of his murder trial “General Garfield died from malpractice, according to his own physician, he was not fatally shot. The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant.” Though the jury didn’t buy it and eventually convicted Guiteau and sentenced him to death, his statement that “I did not kill the president; the doctors did that. I merely shot at him,” was one of the few lucid things he said during his two-month trial. Today, most historians and doctors agree with Guiteau’s assessment that botched medical treatment led by Dr. Willard Bliss killed President James A. Garfield.
-Mark A. Lombardi, Volunteer