President Garfield’s Doctors: A Tragi-Comedy Part I

Charles Guiteau admitted that he shot the President, but “it was the doctors who killed him.”  The assassin was certifiably insane, but he wasn’t stupid.  Everybody in the country knew it was the medical men who botched the care of the dying President

President James A. Garfield is Shot

James Abram Garfield (1831-81) was a healthy, athletic, vigorous forty-nine-year old man in the prime of life – but he needed a vacation.  He spent his first four months in office slogging through an exhausting swamp of political infighting and patronage maneuvering.  He had finally outfoxed his political enemies, and needed a rest.  It was July 2, 1881, and he, along with members of his cabinet and their families, were going on a New England tour to relax.


Charles Julius Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin.

On that fateful day, he was shot twice by Charles Julius Guiteau, a deranged political wannabee, who was waiting for him at the Baltimore and Potomac train station.  One bullet was a superficial flesh wound in the arm; the other, more serious, penetrated his side.  He collapsed to the floor, and the Keystone-comedy-of-medical-ineptitude started.

A parade of doctors had been immediately summoned.  One by one they arrived at the station to begin their examinations – probing for the bullet through the gaping hole in Garfield’s side.  This was done with their unwashed fingers – or an unsterile probe.  As it was later learned, all the probing achieved was to forge a false channel in the President’s abdominal cavity where it would become a sinkhole of infection.

The wounded Garfield lay in the station for more than an hour, in pain and with shock symptoms beginning.  But with remarkable common sense and judgment, it was he who insisted on being taken back to the White House.   He even dictated a brief reassuring telegram to his wife, who was supposed to meet him en route.

The Parade of Doctors at the White House

more assassination

Only artist renderings of what the assassination scene “might have been” are available. The President was walking through the ladies waiting room of the train station when he was attacked.

News of Garfield’s assassination traveled faster than the speeding bullet, and the telegraph wires instantly carried the stories to the entire country.  By the time the stricken man was taken back to a makeshift White House hospital room, a small army of medical men was arriving.   They all meant well of course, but along with a cursory examination and their “expert” diagnoses, they could also have the dubious distinction of being one of the President’s medical consultants.  Most believed the President would not survive the night.

Once again it was James Garfield himself who had the common sense to call a halt to the parade of physicians.  He was in terrible pain, and the probing was making it worse.  His temperature was rising.  He had nausea and vomiting.  When Dr. Willard Bliss arrived, the President told him to take charge of the case, select his own associates and dismiss the rest.  While Garfield was wise enough to take control of the matter, his choice of Bliss could not have been worse.

When “Ignorance is Willard Bliss”…

garfield's doctors

The medical team of doctors who were assembled to treat the wounded Presidents. The consensus has always been that they did more harm than good.

D. Willard Bliss (1825-89) was a mediocre doctor at best.  Garfield selected him because they had been childhood friends, and when he became President and needed a personal physician, Bliss, now practicing in Washington, seemed a likely choice.  But he was an egocentric man with an autocratic manner.  By the time Garfield finally expired, the jokes about “ignorance being Bliss” were rampant in the newspapers.

As Doctor-in-Charge, Bliss appointed a “team” of physicians:  Dr. Smith Townsend, who had been the first on the scene, Surgeon-General J.K. Barnes who had been at the bedside of the dying Lincoln, and Doctors J.J. Woodward and Robert Reyburn.  Each was assigned a specific responsibility.  Dr. Townsend had the minimal duty of taking the President’s temperature, pulse and respiration three times a day.

Willard Bliss was an adequate doctor – as long as nobody was sick or injured.  Enamored by his old relationship with the President and his new-found prominence, he zealously and jealously guarded his purview, systematically alienating everyone concerned.

Media Coverage of President Garfield’s Health

This new convergence of a medical “team” was major news.   The team would be augmented by Doctors David Hayes Agnew and Frank Hastings Hamilton from Philadelphia and New York, respectively.  The latter two were considered the finest surgeons in the country, and would diplomatically make no comment (which is comment enough) about the dictatorial Dr. Bliss.

formal garfield

President James A. Garfield was in the prime of life and health until the moment he was shot by an assassin.

The public was naturally anxious for President Garfield’s health, and even more importantly, insatiable in its demand for up-to-the-minute news.  The President’s secretary, Joseph Stanley Brown, was hounded by journalists, so he devised a little chart which he released three times a day – listing Dr. Townsend’s contribution: the President’s temperature, pulse and respiration rates.  Occasionally the country would be treated to a special bulletin regarding Garfield’s bowel movements.  Nothing was sacred.

The Continuing Misdiagnosis

Right from the very beginning, when the doctors claimed Garfield would not survive the night, they were wrong.  He lived for ten weeks, despite them.  They continuously probed for a bullet they could not find.   Then they decided it was about twelve inches from where it actually was.  They also concluded that it had affected his liver.  It had not.  Stay tuned!

It would be a long, very hot summer for the dying President.


  • Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  • Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
  • Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to President Garfield’s Doctors: A Tragi-Comedy Part I

  1. energywriter says:

    Wow! I never knew the source of “Ignorance is bliss.” I always thought it meant that we could stumble through life unaware of the awful things going on around us and that ignorance would keep us happy. I won’t use that phrase anymore. Interesting too. that one of the inadequate doctors was named Agnew. I guess the self-aggrandizing behavior would continue through the family to a future vice-president. sd

    • I believe the origin of the “ignorance is bliss” quote is from Alexander Pope, and the 19th century folks enjoyed “punning” with it. You can use the phrase any time you like. Pope won’t mind. And I do not believe that Dr. Agnew was any relation to Spiro T.

  2. Mike Fitzpatrick says:

    I have been looking for a long time for a list of the doctors that examined Garfield after he was shot. In particular I am interested to know if David J. Hussey was one of them. I have a pass issued to him from the White House for the time that Garfield was lying there wounded. Hussey was a Civil War veteran. He received his medical degree in 1868 and had practiced medicine and surgery in Illinois before accepting an appointment as a clerk to the Pension Bureau in April 1881. But the pass does not specify why he was admitted to the White House. Hussey was later part of the Guard of Honor during the time that Garfield’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

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