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Excerpted from Reinventing Medicine by Larry Dossey. Copyright 1999 by Larry Dossey. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.
 


"Washington's physicians were doing the best they could with the knowledge they had."

Larry Dossey, Reinventing Medicine, Part 3

"'Tis well," he finally whispered. These were his last words. Five hours later, with his beloved Martha at his side, George Washington died.

Washington was hard to kill. At a muscular six-four, he was a giant for his day. His ironlike constitution enabled him to survive a volley of illnesses that would have killed weaker men--dysentery, influenza, malaria, mumps, pleurisy, pneumonia, rickets, smallpox, staph infections, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever--not even counting all the lead shot at him. It is ironic that in the end he succumbed to an illness that today is regarded more as a nuisance than a disease and that can be cured by a single injection or a handful of pills: strep throat.

It is easy to find fault with the way America's first president was treated in his final hours, but retrospective criticism is unfair. Washington's physicians were doing the best they could with the knowledge they had. To senior physicians Craik and Brown, young Dick's suggestion of a tracheotomy probably sounded like assassination. They were unwilling to make Washington, the most revered man in America, an experiment for an unproved, unfamiliar surgical intervention. Washington himself declined Dick's advice. A true man of his time, he got what he expected and what he wanted -- bleeding, blistering, and purging.

The Eras of Medicine

Washington's deathbed therapies show a gruesome side of medicine, which has prevailed for most of our Western history. His final hours reveal both the helplessness of the physicians of his day and the fact that by and large the techniques in use at the time either did not work or were actually harmful. In the early nineteenth century, there was no getting around the fact that doctors were dangerous.

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