How Washington Died

By Don Vitale

It was 10 in the morning when George Washington rode his horse through heavy snow to inspect his plantation at Mount Vernon.

Still physically robust at the age of 67, Washington spent five hours outside marking trees he planned to cut....riding amidst snow, hail and freezing rain.

By the time he arrived home, his clothes were soaking wet...and cold.

It was Thursday December 12 1799. The next morning Washington awoke with a sore throat yet he still rode outside marking additional trees to be cut. That evening he complained of severe hoarseness and spent the time reading newspapers with his wife Martha and Colonel Tobias Lear, his private secretary. Colonel Lear suggested Washington take medication but America's Founding Father waived it off with, "You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came."

However in the early morning hours of Saturday he told Martha that he was not well, that it was hard for him to breathe and could barely speak. Colonel Lear sent for the overseer Mr. Rawlins who prepared a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter. Washington tried to swallow it but went into a convulsion. It should be noted that Washington was a firm believer of bloodletting after seeing it cure various maladies on those who worked for him. He told Rawlins to remove some blood which Rawlins did, a pint from Washington's arm. Martha, who was against bloodletting, begged them to remove only a small amount.

Doctor James Craik arrived, Washington's friend and personal physician. Followed by Gustavus Richard Brown and Doctor Elisha Cullen Dick, both prominent physicians. Dr. Craik placed a blister of catharides (otherwise known as dried beetles) on his patient's throat. Then he performed two venesections of 20 ounces each. A venesection (for those uninformed in such matters, in other words you and I) is the removal of blood through your veins. In addition to the venesection a solution of vinegar and hot water was prepared to ease Washington's sore throat and his inability to swallow. Since that did not alleviate the symptoms, Dr. Craik repeated a venesection removing another 40 ounces of blood.

When that did not work, Dr. Dick continued with bloodletting, taking 32 ounces of blood from Washington's forearm. As his condition continued to deteriorate, Washington spoke to his three attending physicians. "I feel myself going, I thank you for your intentions but I pray you take no more troubles about me. Let me go off quietly, I cannot last long." The three physicians all that night applied blisters and poultices of wheat bran to his legs. Dr. Dick's recommendation at this point was that his patient's trachea be perforated. This newly reported procedure was a last resort for those said to be at death's door. Both Drs. Craik and Brown refused to allow this procedure to be used.

Dr. Dick's explained later: "I proposed to perforate the trachea as a means of prolonging life and of affording time for the removal of the obstruction to respiration in the larynx which manifestly threatened speedy resolution."

As to the bloodletting, the total quantity of blood removed from Washington was approximately 124 ounces...that's 3.75 liters...drawn over nine to ten hours. That's a lot of blood...more than half his body's total blood volume! Apparently bloodletting was used in those days as a remedy for a variety of illnesses. But Hey Buster....aren't you glad you live today! And that's not to say that everyone agreed with the treatment applied on Washington.

Six weeks after Washington's death Dr. James Brickell criticized the procedures used by the three doctors. "I think it my duty to point out what appears to me a most fatal error in their plan...old people cannot bear bleeding as well as the young...we see...they drew from a man in the 69th (sic) year of his age the enormous about 13 hours. "Very few of the most robust young men in the world could survive such a loss of blood; but the body of an aged person....and all his power so weakened by it as to make his death speedy and inevitable." Dr. Brickell's article was not made public until 1903, a hundred years later.

It goes without saying that all three physicians were prominent in their fields, acting in the former President's best interests in treating him over the three-day period. In the room where the Father of Our Country lay dying his 19-year-old step-grandson George Washington Custis watched, a witness to his grandfather's final moments:
" the night advanced it became evident that he was sinking and he seemed fully aware that 'his hour was nigh.'  He inquired the time and, and was answered a few minutes to ten. He spoke no more-- the hand of death was upon him, and he was conscious that 'his hour was come.'  With surprising self-possession he prepared to die. Composing his form at length, and folding his arms on his bosom, without a sigh, without a groan, the Father of The Country Died. No pang or struggle told when the noble spirit took its noiseless flight: while so tranquil appeared the manly features in the repose of death, that some moments had passed ere those could believe that the patriarch was no more."--dv