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A series of historical documents sheds light on the final moments of George Washington, whose cause of death has been a mystery for hundreds of years.
Washington first complained of a cough and runny nose on Dec. 13, 1799, while he was living in Fairfax County, VA at Mount Vernon estate. He was 67 years old at the time and had left office two and a half years prior. By the next day, his condition had worsened and doctors arrived to treat him for shortness of breath and a fever.
At the time, the practice of medicine was based on four body humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Doctors believed that an imbalance or infection of the humors was the cause of most illnesses, and treatments focused on restoring the balance of the humors.
Doctors first tried bloodletting, a practice widely believed at the time to be effective, and then gave Washington a tonic of molasses, butter and vinegar.
Then, they applied Spanish fly to Washington’s throat, which would have caused extremely painful blisters; doctors thought the treatment would draw out the toxic humors that were causing the illness. Another physician suggested Washington take medicine that was meant to induce vomiting.
Doctors continued the process of bloodletting and Spanish fly throughout the day, but to no avail; Washington died shortly after 8 p.m.
Physicians have disagreed about the cause of death, but proposed several possibilities, including croup, quinsy, diphtheria, and strep throat after pneumonia. The bloodletting also took 40 percent of Washington’s blood volume, which would not have helped his condition.
Washington was considerate to his doctors to the end and took the time to thank them for their treatment, according to Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
Warm up questions:
- We all know George Washington was the country’s first president, but what are some of his major accomplishments?
- If you were really sick and had a bad sore throat, what steps would you take to get better?
- There are still many diseases that have no cure. What are the processes doctors and researchers take to try to find new effective treatments? Do you think it is very different than how treatments were discovered 200 years ago? Explain your answer.
Critical thinking questions:
- In George Washington’s time, the understanding of illness was based on four body humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Today we understand the reasons behind illness differently. Explain what we believe and how we know it.
- During the time of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the heart was thought to be the most important part of the body, while the brain was thought to be of no importance to the body. How have we come to change our view on how our body works overtime? Do you think our understanding will continue to change in the future?
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