To Kill or Cure

by Bob Lupton on


George took his place at the head of Martha’s exquisitely adorned dinner table, his clothes still wet from a long day on horseback supervising work on his expansive Mt Vernon estate. Earlier in the day, the rain had turned to snow as December temperatures fell below freezing. Though he was chilled to the bone and could feel a sore throat coming on, George declined to change into dry clothes. Punctuality was one of his virtues, and he would not keep Martha and their dinner guests waiting.

During the night, the pain in George’s throat worsened and he developed a fever. He woke Martha up around 2 a.m. complaining that he was having trouble breathing. She immediately wakened his personal assistant who at George’s insistence bled out a pint of blood to relieve the swelling in George’s throat. When this didn’t help, his aid sent for the family physician. The local doctor’s common remedies (inhaling hot vinegar steam and a gargle of molasses-vinegar-butter) caused George to choke and nearly suffocate. It immediately became clear that additional medical skill was needed. By noon three doctors had arrived and were huddling around his bed. They could not reach consensus on a diagnosis and each attempted a different remedy. One prescribed an emetic to induce vomiting. Another swabbed this throat with a salve of ground beetles. Another administered an enema of mercury-based calomel. The only procedure about which they all agreed was blood-letting, which was done several times.   

Over the next ten hours, George’s fever raged and his throat constricted. None of the treatments administered by his team of physicians arrested his worsening condition. Late that evening the former president slipped into unconsciousness and died. There was no consensus as to the cause of his death, though Martha did voice her concern over the excessive blood-letting. Almost half of his blood had been drained from his body. Nearly a century would pass before French scientist Louis Pasteur would discover that it was not bad blood that caused such illnesses. It was germs. In all likelihood, our first president died from malpractice.

Lest we judge the attending physicians too harshly, we must remember that they were employing the best treatments available to medical science in 1799. Blood-letting had been around for 3000 years and was credited with saving countless lives. Had George recovered from his throat infection, blood-letting would likely have received the credit. The widely accepted theory that the bad blood causes most human illnesses had not yet been disproven by scientific research. What seems today like a barbaric practice was considered enlightened medical practice in George’s day. His physicians acted responsibly on the best knowledge available. They had no way of knowing that bloodletting was just as likely to kill as cure.

Down through history, this kill or cure experimentation has unlocked many amazing secrets (admittedly at a significant price). Like surgeons discovering that washing their hands between operations dramatically reduced mortality rates. Like British sailors curing scurvy by sucking on limes. This trial and error method stumbles its way into surprising breakthroughs, even in our day. Actually, there is a time-honored practice that is right now being debunked. For centuries it was believed that charity was a cure for poverty. Only recently have people realized that charity can be toxic. When administered inappropriately, charity can cause loss of self-worth, weakened work ethic, and deepened dependency – all of which deepen rather than alleviate poverty. So why does toxic charity, known to be harmful, continue to be the most popular method for assisting the poor?

For the same reason physicians resisted Pasteur’s germ theory for more than two generations.  What doctor would want to admit that bloodletting was actually malpractice? What church would want to admit that their clothes-closet-food- pantry-giveaways were doing more harm than good? And to further complicate matters, the dispersal of charity produces a rush of euphoria – not so much in the recipient as in the one who administers it. It just feels so good, so right. It is just easier to go with our heart, close our eyes to the research, and allow the results of our compassion to remain unexamined. I hope it will not take two generations for us to detoxify our cure.