Friday, October 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt twelve)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Regrettably, though, a modern reader must conclude that this eminence did not really count for much. None of Garfield’s doctors exemplified the immature, underdeveloped state of their profession better than their leader, Willard Bliss—the rare physician to have, by middle age, earned the esteem of statesmen and poets: Lincoln had appointed him to be a division surgeon in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, while Walt Whitman (impressed by Bliss’s skill with a bonesaw) described him as “one of the best surgeons in the Army.” Bliss also possessed that most invaluable and timeless of medical traits: an immaculate bedside manner. His peers had never seen another doctor be so attentive to patients.

And yet, Bliss’s mastery of the tactile aspects of his craft was countered by a curious faith in metaphysics and pseudoscience. Deft at fixing torn arteries, Bliss also had a near-irrepressible curiosity for quack treatments, which he mistook for scientific breakthroughs. The intangible inner processes of the body remained in great part a mystery to him—so much so, that he did not understand how little he knew about them. Bliss had spent years promoting an Andean herb as the cure for “cancer, syphilis, ulcers… and all chronic blood diseases.” This belief helped get him booted, briefly, from the District of Columbia Medical Society.

The exile did not last long, though, for the entire field of American medicine was also in a state of flux—oscillating, like much of the rest of the country, between rational and irrational forces by the end of the nineteenth century. The nation was mechanizing, but its doctors still often conducted their work as if it were the dark ages. Bloodletting and blistering remained in use—the same treatments that had hastened the death of Garfield’s father, Abram, a half-century before. More “fashionable surgeons” in other wards looked down on such outdated ideas, but still used animal sinew instead of thread to sew up incisions.

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