After riding his horse on the Mount Vernon property through the snow on two consecutive cold December days, George Washington, developed a troubling sore throat and some hoarseness.
His personal secretary, Colonel Lear, suggested he take some medicine, to which he replied, “You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.”
Early in the morning on the next day, he awoke gasping for breath. One of the estate overseers, Albin Rawlins, prepared a concoction of molasses, vinegar, and butter. However, when General Washington swallowed it, he went into a fit of convulsive suffocation.
Since Washington claimed to have had previous success with the practice of bloodletting, he then asked his overseer Rawlins, to perform a venesection in his upper arm, who then removed a half pint of blood.
Mrs. Washington and the overseer became uncomfortable with the procedure, but General Washington reassured them saying, “Don’t be afraid. The orifice is not large enough. More, more.”
|The practice of bloodletting to restore health dates back to the ancient Egyptians and persisted through the Greek and Roman times up to the late 1800s in Europe and America.|
Three doctors were summoned to Washington’s beside on December 14, 1799. In additional to more bloodlettings, they administered poultices made of cantharides (preparation of dried beetles) and a vinegar and bran mixture. They also cleared his bowels using calomel (mercury chloride) and tartar, which was commonly practiced in the 1700s.
Seeing the futility of the doctor’s attempts to save him, Washington laboriously uttered, “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions but I pray you take no more troubles about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.”
Later, Washington sensed death was imminent, gave his last instructions to Albin Rawlins regarding his papers and finances.
To his personal secretary, Colonel Lear, he said his last words, “I am just going. Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand me? ‘Tis well.”
Martha Washington, dutifully sitting at the foot of the bed, said upon hearing her husband’s last breath, “Is he gone? Tis well. All is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through.”
In a futile attempt to save Washington, bloodletting occurred five times over the course of nine to ten hours that afternoon and evening.
General Washington, even at the age of 69, was a physically impressive man measuring 6 feet 3 inches in height and weighing 230 pounds. Because adult blood volume is 70 ml/kg, one can estimate the blood volume of President Washington at seven liters.
The extraction of more than half of his blood volume within a short period of time inevitably led to severe anemia, hypovolemia, and hypotension.
The fact that General Washington stopped struggling and appeared physically calm shortly before his death was likely due to profound hypotension and shock.
Due to the meticulous notes taken by the three attending physicians, many modern day clinicians have attempted to diagnose Washington’s illness long after the fact.
Among them are Strep throat (due to Streptococcus pyogenes) and epiglottitis due to Haemophilus influenzae or Corynebacterium diphtheriae, both of which could cause a rapid blockage of the respiratory airways.
So, whether the Father of our Country died of a bacterial infection or the severe loss of blood caused by his well-meaning physicians practicing the futile art of bloodletting, we will never know for sure. We do know that our country lost perhaps its greatest hero that night.
The last living moment of President George Washington was later described by his step-grandson, George Washington Custis:
“… as the night advanced it became evident that he was sinking, and he seemed fully aware that ‘his hour was nigh.’ He inquired the time, and was answered a few minutes to ten. He spoke no more-the hand of death was upon him, and he was conscious that ‘his hour was come.’ With surprising self-possession he prepared to die. Composing his form at length, and folding his arms on his bosom, without a sigh, without a groan, the Father of his Country died. No pang or struggle told when the noble spirit took its noiseless flight; while so tranquil appeared the manly features in the repose of death, that some moments had passed ere those around could believe that the patriarch was no more.”
Jay Hardy, CLS, SM(NRCM)