Anthrax and the President, 1789

TOPICS: George Washington, Health and Medicine, Washington’s Presidency

by James E. Guba, Copy Editor, and Philander D. Chase, former Editor-in-Chief

In the middle of June 1789, only about six weeks after George Washington had been inaugurated first president of the United States with great fanfare at New York’s Federal Hall, he became alarmingly ill. “A very large and painful tumor” on Washington’s left thigh and a lingering “slow fever” left him almost totally unable to attend to any of his pressing new duties (GW to James McHenry, 3 July 1789, in Presidential Series, 3:109; and Massachusetts Centinel [Boston], 27 June 1789). Dr. Samuel Bard, one of the city’s leading physicians, soon was summoned to examine the ailing president. His diagnosis was anthrax!

Making an accurate modern diagnosis of Washington’s illness in 1789 is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because no precise description of the president’s medical condition has survived and because the eighteenth-century definition of “anthrax” was different than the one used today. The term as it was employed by Dr. Bard apparently meant “a Carbuncle-swelling . . . that arises in several Parts surrounded with fiery, sharp, and painful Pimples” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1:360). There is no reason to believe that Washington suffered from the “splenic fever” of sheep and cattle or “wool-sorter’s disease” caused by contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products that gained notoriety as an agent of bioterrorism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The term “anthrax” was not applied exclusively to that disease until the latter part of the nineteenth century after German physician Robert Koch and French chemist Louis Pasteur independently discovered the link between it and Bacillus anthracis, the first bacterium proven to cause a disease.

Dr. Bard, in any case, simply treated Washington for the malignant carbuncle on his thigh, and, whether because or in spite of the doctor’s efforts, the president eventually recovered. Bard recommended surgery to Washington, and on 17 June, at the president’s residence on Franklin Square, Bard incised the troublesome tumor with the assistance of his seventy-three-year-old father Dr. John Bard. According to an anecdotal account, the elder Dr. Bard urged his son during the operation to “cut away–deeper, deeper still, don’t be afraid, you see how well he bears it” (John Brett Langstaff, Doctor Bard of Hyde Park [New York, 1942], 171).

Washington certainly needed all of his stoicism during the long and painful recovery that followed his surgery. According to another second-hand account that first appeared in an 1822 biography of the younger Bard, the doctor found Washington’s infection “so malignant as for several days to threaten mortification” [i.e., gangrene]. During this period, Dr. Bard never quitted him. On one occasion, being left alone with him, General Washington looking steadfastly in his face, desired his candid opinion as to the probable termination of the disease, adding, with that placid firmness which marked his address, “Do not flatter me with vain hopes; I am not afraid to die, and therefore, can bear the worst.” Dr. Bard’s answer, though it expressed hope, acknowledged his apprehensions.

The president replied, “whether to-night, or twenty years hence, makes no difference; I know that I am in the hands of a good Providence” (John McVickar, The Life of Samuel Bard [New York, 1822], 136-37).

It is known that during the first week of Washington’s convalescence ropes or chains were stretched across the street that ran in front of his house to prevent carriages from passing and disturbing him (see Massachusetts Centinel [Boston], 27 June 1789, and Tobias Lear to James Duane, 25 June 1789, in Langstaff, Doctor Bard of Hyde Park, 172-73). On 3 July 1789, a little more than two weeks after his surgery, Washington wrote James McHenry that “my health is restored, but a feebleness still hangs upon me, and I am yet much incommoded by the incision which was made in a very large and painful tumor on the protuberance of my thigh–this prevents me from walking or sitting; however the Physicians assure me that it has had a happy effect in removing my fever, and will tend very much to the establishment of my general health; it is in a fair way of healing, and time and patience only are wanting to remove this evil. I am able to take exercise in my coach, by having it so contrived, as to extend myself the full length of it” (Presidential Series, 3:112).

Another three weeks passed before Washington could begin to sit up. On 26 July 1789 he wrote family friend David Stuart that “in the first moments of my ability to sit in an easy chair (and that not entirely without pain) I occupy myself in acknowledging the receipt of, and thanking you for your letter of the 14th instt” (ibid., 321). The next day he wrote his nephew Bushrod Washington that “among the first acts of my recommencing business (after lying six weeks on my right side) is that of writing you this letter. . . . Not being fairly on my seat yet, or in other words not being able to sit up without feeling some uneasiness, it must be short” (ibid., 334). On 2 August 1789 the president wrote Senator Richard Henry Lee of Virginia that “I am unable to sit yet without (soft) Cushings; but have assurances from the Doctors that in a few days more I may expect to be relieved of this inconvenience” (ibid., 371).

Washington was most forthcoming about his long ordeal in his letter of 8 September 1789 to his old friend and personal physician Dr. James Craik, who had not been present during the crisis. “My disorder was of long and painful continuance,” Washington wrote Dr. Craik, “and though now freed from the latter, the wound given by the incision is not yet closed–Persuaded as I am that the case has been treated with skill, and with as much tenderness as the nature of the complaint would admit, yet I confess that I often wished for your inspection of it–During the paroxysm, the distance rendered this impracticable, and after the paroxysm had passed I had no conception of being confined to a lying posture on one side six weeks–and that I should feel the remains of it for more than twelve–The part affected is now reduced to the size of a barley corn, and by saturday next (which will complete the thirteenth week) I expect it will be skinned over–Upon the whole, I have more reason to be thankful that it is no worse than to repine at the confinement. The want of regular exercise, with the cares of office will I have no doubt hasten my departure for that country from whence no Traveller returns; but a faithful dis- charge of whatever trust I accept, as it ever has, so it always will be the primary consideration in every transaction of my life be the consequences what they may” (ibid., 4:1).

Friends of the new federal government also had much reason to be thankful that the president’s illness, coming so soon after his inauguration, was no worse than it was, because to an extraordinary degree the government’s reputation, in the first years of its existence, was linked to Washington’s own person and character. The underlying political reality of the summer of 1789 was that Washington was much more popular and better trusted by his fellow citizens than was the new Constitution of the United States. No one was more keenly aware of Washington’s vital importance to the operation of the new governmental machinery than James Madison, who had done more than anyone else to create it. “The President,” Madison wrote Edmund Randolph on 24 June 1789, “has been ill, but is now in a safe way. His fever terminated in an abscess which was itself alarming, but has been opened with success, and the alarm is now over. His death at the present moment would have brought on another crisis in our affairs” (Madison Papers, 12:258). Washington truly was an indispensable man at that point in American history, and his health was as much a national concern as it was a personal one.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2002 edition of the project newsletter, which you can read in full here.

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