It took James Garfield 11 weeks to die after being shot in the back by Charles Guiteau
in 1881. The bullet nicked an artery
, and it was this wound that eventually killed him: but the efforts of the best physicians of his time would have finished him off anyway.
Since it was believed that the bullet itself would cause infection, the first concern was to find it. This was done by poking into the wound, trying to follow the bullet's channel with a metal probe or a finger. And because most American doctors were still skeptical about Louis Pasteur's 20-year-old theory of bacterial infection, the probes were not sterilized and some of the fingers were not even washed.
Smith Townshend, District of the Columbia health officer, was the first doctor to stick his finger into Garfield's wound. He didn't find the bullet, but reportered that the president complained of heaviness, numbness,and pain in his legs, and that he declared himself to be a dead man.
D.W. Bliss, a prominent Washington surgeon and Garfield's friend, succeeded in getting his heavy Nelaton probe stuck in the fragments of a shattered rib. Removal was quiet painful. Undaunted, he tried again with his little finger, then with a long, thin, flexible silver probe.
Over the next few days, the list of famous doctors who poked into Garfield's wound was impressive. So was the depth to which they probed: upon withdrawing his finger, the surgeon general of the navy reported feeling a perforated liver seven inches from the bullet's entry point.
To relieve the president's discomfort, an engineer improvised air conditioning using an exhaust fan and 3,000 feet of turkish toweling saturated with iced saltwater.
The wound began to suppurate. Dr. Agnew performed two operates to enlarge and drain it. A month later, the president showed signs of blood poisoning. His face was paralyzed, his mind began wandering, and he lost 80 pounds.
Another month later, his nicked artery burst and he died. At his autopsy, the bullet was found encapsulated in scar tissue far from any of the doctors' probings, doing no harm.