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February 27, 2014

Friends of the Library discuss book on James Garfield

By Timothy Simko

On Feb 19, faculty and staff participated in a discussion on "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murder of a President" by Candice Millard. The discussion was part of a series conducted by Friends of the Michael Schwartz Library.

The discussion focused on the fascinating story of President James A. Garfield’s 80-day struggle, after being shot by an assassin. It's revealed in the discussion that it was not the bullet but the unhygienic medicine practices at the time that killed the 20th president, who was born in Ohio and was laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

Barbara Strauss, associate director of discovery support services of the Schwartz Library, started off the discussion by showing interview clips of Candice Millard, the book’s author, talking about the background and her research.

On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield twice from behind, once in the arm and once in the back.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, left the side of his pregnant wife in an effort to help the president recover, according to Strauss. Bell invented the induction balance, which was a metal detector designed to locate the bullet that was lodged inside of Garfield’s body.

However, Garfield’s doctor, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, who was a doctor of medicine but whose given name was also “Doctor,” insisted on using old methods, according to Millard. Bliss was not a fan of using what he regarded as new and radical treatments and refused to sterilize and use antiseptics.

At the time, most doctors had not heard about the germ theory – i.e. most diseases and infections spread because of germs that are invisible to the naked eye. They didn’t believe in washing their hands with soap or sterilizing their surgical equipments. The doctors were fond of what they called the “good old surgical stink.”

Because medical facilities were not as hygienic as they are today, Bliss blindly probing for the bullet inside of Garfield with his dirty unwashed fingers is what ultimately led to the death of the president.

“Arrogance seems to be the source of a lot of trouble,” said Glenda Thornton, the director of the library.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Suzanne Bellini of the math department said in agreement.

Although the death of Garfield hurt the nation, it allowed for significant changes in medical treatment.

“The changes in medical practices wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for his assassination,” said John M. Masnovi of the chemistry department.

The faculty that took part in the discussion praised the book.

“It was accessible and I learned a lot in the process,” said Strauss.

“We need more fun books like this to read,” said library director Thornton.

The Friends of the Michael Swartz Library are planning on taking a bus excursion from Cleveland to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, located in Mentor, Ohio on Friday, March 14, 2014, during Cleveland State University’s spring break.