Well, I bet there are very few of you reading this that have any idea as to where the idiomatic expression used in the BLOG title does come from nor that it has a work related origin….
I just finished reading a book by Candice Millard entitled Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.
James Garfield was one of the ‘Ohio Seven’, a group of mediocre presidents from the buckeye state who served between 1869 and 1923. Seven (7) presidents from Ohio is an anomaly to me in and of itself, since I’ve lived on four (4) continents and the only places in the world where I’ve experienced culture shock have been Arkansas and northwest Ohio. However, James Garfield was from Mentor, Ohio, a lovely Cleveland suburb. James Garfield did not have a ‘remarkable’ life other than the fact that he was elected President of the United States (initially, he did not want to run) and his history shows that he was extremely impoverished while growing up…
The last President to be born in a log cabin, his father died when he was 1 and his mother struggled to make a living for James and his three (3) siblings but she donated some of her farmland to the local community so there would be a schoolhouse….hence, James Garfield grew up with ‘education’ at his fingertips and was taught to consider himself the equal of any man…
President Garfield was assassinated while in office and the history surrounding his assassination is as absurd as the assassination itself. If interested in further reading, please pick up the book. I wanted to write about the poor performance of his Physicians, one (1) in particular, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss and about the stellar performance of Alexander Graham Bell, the persistence of the British surgeon, Dr. Joseph Lister and the American Academy of Surgeons in general….all instrumental, in some way, in the death of our 20th President, James A. Garfield.
At the time of James Garfield’s shooting, Dr. Joseph Lister (yay, Listerine) had discovered an antiseptic that was being heralded across the European continent as the best thing since sliced bread…this was in the 1880’s so I’m pretty sure there were not any commercial bread slicing machines available but you will surely get my drift….the antiseptic was being used by medical professionals all over the continent with astounding success….American Surgeons/Doctors were very anti-Lister’s antiseptic stating that there was NO reason for any type of solution to clean out a wound or to clean surgical instruments…there was a continued belief among the American medical community that the body healed better with the dirt and grime associated with open surgical platforms and that 'pus' was good for it showed that the infection was 'leaving the body' . Go figure.
Garfield was shot in the back in the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington, DC by a deranged individual named Charles J. Guiteau, who imagined he was responsible for Garfield’s election and deserved to be made consul general to France (he also ‘thought’ he was in close communication with God and portrayed himself as an ‘ordained’ minister on many occasions) He was believed to have suffered from syphilis, led a very peripatetic existence, failing as a lawyer and an evangelist…he was unable to find love in a ‘free love colony’, where he was nicknamed ‘Charles Gitout’. He was unable to do or accomplish anything positive but he never stopped believing that he was a great man and would award himself titles, both personally and professionally.…
While in the train station, the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln, who happened to be present during his father’s assassination and who also happened to be Garfield’s Secretary of War, decided to contact a Physician who had been at his father’s side when his father was assassinated: Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss. Dr. Bliss, as well as every other physician that was called into the train station, proceeded to place their dirty fingers into the wound in Garfield’s back in order to locate the bullet. I shudder as I write this. At the behest of Mr. Lincoln, the ‘control’ of President Garfield’s care was placed in the hands of Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, who insisted that no other Physician was to see or touch the President without Dr. Bliss’s permission or presence.
Garfield’s medical ‘care’ is one of the most fascinating, if appalling, parts of his assassination story. Dr. Lister had been demonstrating for years how his theories on the prevention of infection could save lives, limbs and most other body parts, but American Doctors (here is where the arrogance comes in…remember my ruminations about the ‘Unabomber’?) largely ignored his advice, not wanting to ‘go to all the trouble’ of washing hands and instruments, enamored of the ‘masculine’ trappings of their profession, the pus/blood and the ‘good old surgical stink’ of the operating room. Dr. Lister happened to be in New York at the time of Garfield's shooting; he actually went to the White House, knocked on the door and was 'refused' entrance by Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss.
Further affecting the President’s recovery was his sickroom in the White House. At the time, the White House was a vermin infested, rotting structure with broken sewage pipes and no ventilation. Washington, DC, was a putrid ‘stink hole', and besides the first lady, many White House employees and Guiteau himself had developed malaria. Hoping to prevent Garfield from coming down with this disease, Bliss fed him large doses of quinine, which caused Garfield considerable abdominal pain. And, this was in conjunction with the pain that Garfield, very stoically endured, without complaint, for the duration of his convalescence.
Many ‘inroads’ came to be developed during Garfield’s illness for the country rallied together in support of Garfield. John Wesley Powell, the great Western explorer and geologist, helped design America’s first air conditioning system to help eliminate some of the heat/humidity present in Garfield’s bedroom in the White House….Alexander Graham Bell, a friend of President Garfield, worked tirelessly to invent a device that could locate the bullet but when he went to the White House to demonstrate the device, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss would only permit Mr. Bell to ‘test’ the right side of Garfield’s body for Dr. Bliss was ‘sure’ the bullet was there. Dr. Bell was devastated upon leaving the White House believing that his device did not work. Two thousand people worked overnight to lay 3,000 feet of railroad track, so the president might be taken to a cottage on the Jersey Shore. When the engine couldn’t make the hill, hundreds of men stepped forward to push his train up the final hill.
From prison, Guiteau claimed that President Garfield died of malpractice…this was true…however, the gunshot was caused by Guiteau and for that behavior, he was sent to the gallows.
While reading this book, I was enthralled and captivated….it did not ‘read’ as a history book and I continually related to all of the ‘employment’ or ‘personnel’ issues that were faced at this time in our history….However, one of the major questions that I have is why didn’t Garfield ‘speak up’ more against Dr. Bliss’ care, or lack thereof. As it became obvious to those ‘permitted’ to enter the sick room, President Garfield was going to die…no one was permitted to question Dr. Bliss and if they did so, he would not permit them to return. Why did Garfield permit this to happen? Why did Garfield’s wife permit this to continue? I don’t think that we will ever know but now, whenever I hear the expression, Ignorance is Bliss….I will have a greater respect for its contextual meaning…
The reading of this book confirmed a few Human Resources/Personnel facts to/for me….none of us lives or works in a vacuum. Even without Dr. Lister’s advancement with antiseptics, if Dr. Bliss would have permitted other physicians to ‘weigh in’ on the condition of our 20th President, James A. Garfield may have gone on to be more than an admirable man, he may have gone on to become a great President.
Even though there are parts of the book that were hard to read, the story is a wonderful excerpt from American history….even though President Garfield died, many, many positives eventually came out of this sad and devastating event and this book is a rewarding read all around.
If you have any questions about group think, team building or leadership, please contact Rosanne Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 484-798-1236.