How 18th-Century Medicine Killed George Washington

If you ever invent a time machine and travel
back to any time before, say, the 1940s, you’d better hope you don’t get sick. Olden-day medicine was bad. Like, really bad. A strep infection would often turn into scarlet
fever and was fatal a lot of the time. These days you usually just get a round or two of
antibiotics. And for a long time, a doctor’s solution
to practically everything would just be to take a bunch of blood out of your body, a
practice known as bloodletting. They had their reasons, and they didn’t
know a great deal about the world, so I’m not going to blame them too much, but a lot
of the time doctors would make things worse. And if you were someone as important as George
Washington, and you got lots of attention from doctors… well, that medical attention
might end up killing you. The final days of the First American President
are a pretty vivid illustration of how so-called medical science just two hundred years ago
often did more harm than good. On December 12, 1799, Washington spent most
of the day working outside, in snow and freezing rain. When he finally got home, he was cold and
wet, but he refused to change into dry clothes, because that would’ve made him late for
dinner. From modern medicine, we know that being cold
and wet isn’t what actually makes you sick. But it can lower your core body temperature,
weakening your immune system and making you vulnerable to infection. And that’s probably what happened to Washington,
because the next day, he woke up with a sore throat and a cough. He went out to work on the plantation anyway
— even though it had snowed the night before — to help clear some trees. By the evening of the 13th, he was a lot worse.
And around 2 in the morning on the 14th, he woke up with chills, fever, and trouble breathing. His wife, Martha, wanted to go get the doctor,
but she had also been sick recently, so Washington wouldn’t let her go. They sent for the doctor in the morning — eventually
they’d end up with three different doctors — and meanwhile, one of his staff removed
about a quarter of a liter of his blood. Over the course of the following day, almost
two and a half liters of Washington’s blood was drained — — that’s about 40 percent of all of the
blood in his body. For reference, these days hospitals will do
a transfusion if a patient loses more than 30% of their blood. 40%, and it’s time for
serious resuscitation. But doctors used bloodletting in Washington’s
time, because medicine back then was often based on an ancient idea that health comes
from a balance of bodily fluids, called humors. If you were sick, that must mean that your
humors weren’t balanced — and since bloodletting removed lots of fluid, it would help restore
that balance. It was used to treat all sorts of issues,
from smallpox to acne. Of course, mostly it just made things worse. Because … you need your blood. It does important things, like getting oxygen
to all of your tissues, and getting rid of wastes, even the simple stuff, like carbon
dioxide. Along with the bloodletting, Washington’s
doctors diagnosed him with quinsy, or a pocket of pus near his tonsils. These days we call
this a peritonsillar abscess — and it was making it hard for him to breathe. So the next thing they tried was blistering
his throat by applying cantharidin, a secretion that causes severe chemical burns, derived
from a type of beetle called Spanish fly. If that sounds awful, it was. The doctors wanted Washington’s throat to
blister, again to supposedly help draw out fluids and balance the humors in his throat,
where he had symptoms. But all this did was burn his throat, giving
his immune system something else to battle instead of fighting off whatever was actually
wrong with him. So, the blisters didn’t help, and then after
some more bloodletting, they gave the former president an enema. Then, they gave him an emetic, to make him
vomit — thinking that his digestive fluids needed to be balanced. Now, Washington was dehydrated. This only
made matters worse, because they’d removed several liters of his blood, and his body
was trying to make more — but blood is about half water. So by this point, he was not doing well. Oh
god. They tried bleeding him again, and at around
5 in the afternoon, he seemed a little better — at least for a few minutes. And then that’s
when he started having a lot more trouble breathing. The doctors gave Washington some more blisters
on his arms and legs, but that didn’t make him any better. He died between 10 and 11
PM on Saturday, December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. Even back then, people thought the doctors
might have gone a little overboard with the bloodletting. But for the most part, they
were really just going with what they knew — what medicine truly believed about health
at the time. Ever since, doctors have been trying to figure
out what was actually wrong with Washington, and how we might have cured him if it had
happened today. It probably wasn’t a peritonsillar abscess,
because that would have mainly affected one side of his throat. But both sides of Washington’s
throat were sore and swollen. From his symptoms, it seems like he had acute
epiglottitis, an infection in the flap of cartilage that covers your windpipe when you
swallow. It gets worse very quickly, and it can be
fatal if it gets swollen enough to block the patient’s windpipe. Could Washington have lived if the doctors
hadn’t tried to intervene? Maybe, maybe not. He definitely would have had a better
chance, though. These days, we vaccinate against the bacteria
that can cause epiglottitis, but it is still a serious illness. Generally, hospitals will treat patients with
antibiotics to fight the infection, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, and — if necessary
— intubation, where a breathing tube is inserted into the throat, below the epiglottis. In Washington’s day, intubation was still
a very new procedure. One of his doctors did suggest trying it, but the other two thought
it was too dangerous. In the end, the misconceptions that framed
olden-day medicine probably made the president a lot worse. So if you ever do travel in time, please stay
within range of evidence-based medicine. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this
show, you can go to patreon.com/scishow– thank you to all of you that have done that,
it is really wonderful. And if you just want to keep getting smarter with us, you can go
to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe!

100 comments

  1. This video explains how George Washington was killed. It doesn't tell why George Washington was killed. I believe that George Washington was killed because he threatened to come out of retirement and lead a military force due to "The XYZ Affair."

  2. I cannot lie. I was born on December 14th. If i am, somehow, the reincarnation of George Washington… I will seek medical treatment.

  3. Or, if you're a time traveller, maybe bring modern-day medicine and research papers?
    Hopefully kickstart the medical revolution a century or two earlier?

  4. Ugh I caught a bad virus like that last year. My throat hurt so badly that I couldn't even swallow my own saliva. Sore all over. Fatigue. Had to just wait the virus out for 3 full weeks

  5. Fetch a doctor in the 1700s for a headache. Leave with a hole drilled in your head, half of your blood drained out, some missing teeth and horrible nasty blisters all over your body. "Thanks Doc! The pain from all the damage you caused made me forget all about that migraine I had!"

  6. Definitely much better now. Except now you can pay for “evidence”
    For example the “scientists” who said lead was fine for so long and fought to keep it in everything. When there are few studies payed for by the people selling the thing that’s studied, lack of replication, or conclusions that don’t necessarily follow from the data you know something fishy is probably going on

  7. I'm so happy to be born in modern day, mostly because I'd probably harm my doctor just as much as they tried to 'help' me, in retaliation. I bit my dentist when I was twelve during a tooth extraction, I'm not a forgiving person when it comes to physical pain, so ye' olden doctors would have probably lost just as much blood as me if they ever tried to treat me.

  8. Assassin doctors, first potus done, first civer up, hired.. ! You, forget, however, that the sane medical traditiin that killed Potus is the impeering medibe today…This allows you to laugh endlessly of how foolksh the perception of greatness modernity is and reason enough fir ti know your bynch must be sheparded out of security for us all or me…I can find find work entertaing but nit conducive to any thing better than what shoukd be by gone, by bye crap….

  9. Oh my God… I realize that I would have been dead at like maybe 9 or 10 if it wasn't for modern medicine because I had a boil on my stomach that I still have a surgical lamcing(I do have the scar from it to). It was so painful and enlarged that they thought it was going to affect my kidneys! I remember when I first started to notice it was like a little painful rash. And then it got so bad towards the end that I literally could not go to sleep ( that is not a joke really couldn't go to sleep at night) because it was so painful. My mom thought I was just complaining until she saw it was about the size of a tangerine so my mom took me to the emergency room after she saw it and they fixed it that same night… But I wouldn't stop screaming because it hurt so they put me under… Imagine if I lived in a time like the1700's… where especially since I'm overweight they would have probably cut off too much or it would have gotten infected or it could have bursted or something

  10. So, is it a very common thing that people before die always get a bit better? Two of my grandparents passed through the same.

  11. Things to buy before going back in time:

    Hand sanitizer, lots and lots of hand sanitizer.

    And probably something to sanitize water too.

  12. That's why homeopathic medicine was so popular. Sure, it doesn't do anything…but at least it didn't do anything!

  13. His doctors thought that putting a tube down his throat was too dangerous but were perfectly okay with burning his throat. Go figure.

  14. What bugs me the most is that people don't understand what medicine is for, and if you understand this, it would make sense why they did what they did.

    There is very rarely a cure for anything. You take medication to alleviate a symptom, but there is always a chance it gives you a new one, just not as bad as what you had.

    Everything is about remedying, not fixing things.
    Our bodies constantly degrade and fall apart, need updates, check ups and remedies to keep going.
    To quote Scrubs: We're delaying the inevitable

    Now that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do everything we can, life is still important if not fleeting. But if you understand that you are taking that ibuprofen, that antibiotic, that Ritalin in order to combat some physical or mental ailment with the definite chance of getting a side effect or another problem from it, then you understand what medicine is.

    There is almost nothing in the world to fix something that doesn't have side effects. The human body is complicated and ludicrously flawed that anything we do to correct it will eventually have some problems later down the line.

    Medicine does not fix, it only helps you get back to normal temporarily.

    Speaking as someone who's had a gall bladder removed, has really shitty joints and takes medications for mental health issues, I've never had anything that doesn't come with out some kinda complication or new side effect.
    The choice is you deal with the massive horrible migraine you have every few months, or get rid of the pain, but slowly weaken your kidney/liver with all the pain killers over time. Which will likely happen anyway due to age, hence why it is worth it to just get rid of the migraine now.

    TL:DR: Things are trial and error. No one wants to hear that no matter what you do, your likely hood of finding a perfect medication, therapy etc to fix one problem may lead to another, but often less worse problem.
    We're too complicated bodily and mentally to have any easy answers to anything. It's amazing what we can do regardless of this fact.
    The only thing that's always helpful is more information, more education and more willingness to reevaluate what we think we know, if there might be better options.

    I don't envy doctors and nurses in the slightest. They know that nothing they do will fix anything, just temporarily help the person, and sometimes a risk to save a life is needed. Every doctor has made a call that probably killed someone. Error is unfortunately apart of a learning process for everyone and it's not something anyone takes lightly.

  15. What happened if I traveled back in time but brought a encyclopedia Modern day medicine and should them how to make antibiotics and the scientific theory and made the 1700th century medicine like modern day medicine what would the world look like today

  16. And modern medicine is just as bad, now they're just drug dealers. Got a cold, take a pill. Got a rash, take a pill. Just be warned that the cure can be worse than the disease.

  17. This makes me very curious like how much did blood letting actually help in any case? I know medicine was bad but they were men and women of education so trial and error should've came more into play right? If I'm not mistaken blood lettings been around since midevil times and I havnt heard of anyone getting better form it ( history wise).

  18. my countries medicine at that time was drinking a lot of water which u have recite some quranic verse, read some quranic verse, eat kismis and zaitun ( dont know the english name, it is malay) and maybe eat some herb like tongkat ali and etc. If that does work. then go to shaman. hahaha.

  19. Spanish fly was also an early Viagra (that is, an early remedy for erectile dysfunction) and in at least one Agatha Christie story, a poison used to murder. Consult your doctor do determine if Spanish Fly is right for you.

  20. I just feel really queasy right now and i'm thankful for living in the 21st century with educated doctors and not some morons thinking that the universe was permiated "aether/ether" and the world is mado up of only four elements.

  21. i want a crack series like House, except with Washington's doctors. In the Christmas special, they diagnose King George ("You'll Be Back") with fairies of the heart.

  22. Imagine getting a bunch of chemical burns on the inside of your esophagus, and then throwing up over them. God. No thanks.

  23. I now see why schools don't tell us how Washington died- because they didn't want to point out how stupid those doctors where XD

  24. Makes you wonder what modern medical practices people of the future will look back on and ask "Whyyyyyyyyy?" There's stuff we already know is wrong, but doctors keep doing anyway, like using BMI to diagnose patients, but then there's stuff like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which, frankly, are pretty awful ways to try to cure someone–we just don't know of anything better.

  25. Is beyond me how this four humors was even a thing. Even without our understanding of science now day it still lack common sense.

  26. This is why homeopathy became widespread – you were often made worse by doctors doing standard stuff like bloodletting, and many people recovered in spite of treatment rather than because of it. For many ailments, doing nothing was better than the standard treatment, so homeopathy started getting better results than mainstream medicine for some conditions because it's the same as doing nothing. It actually prevented you from getting the more dangerous alternative, but now it prevents you from getting effective treatment.

  27. You would’ve thought that someone would put two and two together about the blood letting. Oh my patient is feeling worse right after blood letting? DRAIN MOAR BLOOD!

  28. The story definitely does not sound right, with all the other bs where told it could be a complete fabrication and he was straight murdered, that's probably what really happened.

  29. The four humors medicine was in fact considered widely obslolete by the late 17 hundreds. Whoever they were, those doctors might have used bloodletting and emetics based in some newer machanistic models that were considered fashionable at time. Bloodletting survived outside it's original hippocratic framework, but justified by new theoretical models (mecanistic or vitalistic). See Roy Porter's book on the history of medicine: "The greatest benefit to mankind" (I think the chapters on the Renaissance will sufice to clear it up). Another important thing: most of science's theoretical developments in these times did not imediately change the therapeutic tradicions. Doctors were expansíve and they sold there counsels to a well educated social class who had much more authority and decision power than they did. It was quite commom for patients to decide much of the treatment. Bloodletting was traditionally asked for by humbler people whenever they needed a surgeon's help. Whasington may have left the choice to his doctors, but in general medical authority was not strong as It is today.

  30. Pneumonia is Deadly SERIOUS…I know …I had it for A 1week…But Took Antibiotics and Got Better…

  31. I remember reading about this in a book called “Blood: an Epic History of Medicine and Commerce”, about the history of science related to blood and especially blood transfusions. According to what the book said about this incident, even one of the doctors treating Washington thought they had overdone it with the bleeding (he still thought they should bleed him, but lightly from under the tongue), but was overruled by the others.
    The book was talking about this while giving the history of Benjamin Rush, a beloved doctor of those days, who despite his good intentions, devotion, moral uprightness, and generally being a “genuinely saintly man” (their words, IIRC), sadly probably killed more people than he saved by misguided use of bleeding.
    Apparently, Rush had been suing someone for badmouthing his practices and demanding they pay ridiculous fines at basically exactly the time Washington was being mistreated; it’s this incident that was apparently a big step in bloodletting/phlebotomy being discredited as medicine.

  32. Better than Lincoln's doctor's who shoved a dirty metal probe into his wound and 'caused an infection. Lincoln was killed by his Doctor's not by John Wilkes Booth. Oh, yeah, they didn't even take him to a hospital, they just took him too a room across the street and let him die there.

  33. Washington died at age 67. The fact is that he was going to die regardless of age or illness. In other words, Washington was not going to live long enough for us to shake his hand.

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