Exhibit documents the death of a president


WASHINGTON -- Three vertebrae, removed from the body of President James A. Garfield, lie on a stretch of blue satin. A red plastic probe running through them marks the path of his assassin's bullet, fired July 2, 1881.

The vertebrae form the centerpiece of a new exhibit, commemorating the 125th anniversary of Garfield's assassination. The exhibit also features photographs and other images that tell the story of the shooting and its aftermath, in which Garfield lingered on his deathbed for 80 days. At the National Museum of Health and Medicine, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the exhibit opened July 2 and will close, 80 days later, on Sept. 19.

Garfield was waiting at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, about to leave for New England, when he was shot twice by Charles J. Guiteau. The first bullet grazed Garfield's arm, said Lenore Barbian, anatomical collections curator for the museum. But the second struck him in the right side of the back and lodged deep in the body.

"No one expected Garfield to live through the night," Barbian said.

As the display makes clear, the second bullet pierced Garfield's first lumbar vertebra, crossing from right to left.

At the time, however, without the benefit of modern diagnostics, Garfield's doctors could not determine the location of the bullet. "Trying to understand its pathway became their primary concern," Barbian said.

At least a dozen medical experts probed the president's wound, often with unsterilized metal instruments or bare hands, as was common at the time.

Sterile technique, developed by the British surgeon Joseph Lister in the mid-1860s, was not yet widely appreciated in the United States, although it was accepted in France, Germany and other parts of Europe. Historians agree that massive infection, which resulted from unsterile practices, contributed to Garfield's death.

The exhibit describes how the president's fluctuating medical condition became a national obsession in the summer of 1881. His doctors issued daily medical briefings, which were rapidly disseminated by telegraph and published in newspapers across the country. In response, the White House received letters by the bushel basket.

"One man suggested that they turn the president upside down and see if the bullet would just fall out," Barbian said.

The exhibit also includes an image of the metal detector designed by Alexander Graham Bell to search for the bullet. It was composed of a battery and several metal coils positioned on a wooden platform and was connected to an earpiece.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, senior curator at the museum, said the device was designed to create an electromagnetic field, which would be disrupted in the presence of a metal object. The disruption would cause the device to emit a clicking sound through the earpiece.

"Electricity and magnetism were just being appreciated as ways to explore the body's interior," Reznick said.

Bell's invention failed on two occasions to pinpoint the bullet's location. Historians say this might have been because the device picked up metal coils in the president's mattress, or because Bell searched only on the right side of Garfield's body, where the lead physician, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss - Doctor was his given name - had come to believe the bullet was lodged.

In early September, the president was moved from the White House to a cottage in Elberon, N.J., on the shore.

Also in the exhibit is an image of the president on his deathbed, lying on his back draped in a sheet and surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Lucretia, and his daughter, Mollie. Garfield died in New Jersey on Sept. 19, 1881.

Photographs of Dr. Daniel S. Lamb and Dr. Joseph J. Woodward, who led the autopsy, are shown in the exhibit. Lamb and Woodward were affiliated with the Army Medical Museum in Washington, which later became the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

At the autopsy, it became evident that the bullet had pierced Garfield's vertebra but missed his spinal cord. The bullet had not struck any major organs, arteries or veins, and had come to rest in adipose tissue on the left side of the president's back, just below the pancreas.

Dr. Ira Rutkow, a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a medical historian, said: "Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today's world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days."

Behind the scenes, relations between Garfield's physicians were acrimonious, historians say. While the head physician, Bliss, released optimistic reports to the press, his rivals, including Dr. Silas Boynton, repeatedly leaked negative - and ultimately more truthful - information. (Bliss was an allopath, and Boynton was a homeopath, which partly accounts for their rivalry.)

Medical journals also published scathing editorials criticizing the president's care. "You wouldn't see that kind of bickering in medical journals today," Rutkow said.

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