(BPT) - School children are taught that after a life of action and harrowing battles, George Washington died peacefully in his bed at Mount Vernon. In fact, the nation's first president died a slow and bloody death. In his book 'Becoming George Washington,' author Steve Yoch says the founding father was a life-long believer in the efficacy of bleeding as a medical treatment. 'And because of this,' explains Yoch, 'Washington and his physicians virtually guaranteed his death by excessive bleeding.'
Yoch says that on December 12, 1799, Washington ignored a blanket of snow and hail and mounted his horse for a five-hour tour of his farms. He chose not to change out of his wet clothes when he arrived home because dinner was ready and he did not want to inconvenience his guests.
The next morning, even though the snow had fallen even harder and he was starting to feel sick, Washington went down to the Potomac to inspect another part of his sprawling plantation. That night, he retired for the evening in a cheerful mood and said the best treatment for the cold was to 'let it go as it came.' His wife Martha thought he looked terrible, but Washington chose to sit up late in the library reading. In the middle of the night, he woke Martha with throat pain and shortness of breath. Once again, he rejected medical treatment and wanted to rely on his body's own restorative powers.
In the morning, Martha would wait no longer and called for Dr. James Craik, one of Washington's oldest friends and a trusted physician who had served with him since the French and Indian war 40 years earlier. 'Washington always believed that bleeding improved his health,' says Yoch. 'As a young man, he frequently turned to bleeding to address his repeated illness throughout the French and Indian War and it's only through sheer luck that his physicians didn't kill him then.'
Unfortunately, he wasn't so lucky in December of 1799. While waiting for Dr. Craik to arrive, Washington ordered Albin Rawlins, a local clerk, to bleed him. As author Ron Chernow notes in his biography 'Washington: A Life,' 'When the clerk blanched, Washington gently but firmly pressed him 'don't be afraid' he said. Once Rawlins had sliced into the skin, making the blood run freely, he added, 'The orifice is not large enough.' Martha showed better medical judgment and pleaded for a halt to the bleeding. Washington urged Rawlins on, saying 'More, more!' until nearly a pint of blood had been drained.'
When Craik finally arrived, he immediately drew more blood and applied a treatment of dried beetles to Washington's inflamed throat. Craik summoned another doctor, Elisha Cullen Dick. As soon as Dick arrived, he and Craik siphoned off even more blood, which 'came very slow, was thick, and did not produce any symptoms of fainting.'
Historians estimate that Washington surrendered five pints of blood all together, or about half of his body's total supply. Washington probably suffered from a virulent bacterial infection of the epiglottis. As it swells, the epiglottis closes off the windpipe, making breathing and swallowing extremely difficult and eventually impossible.
Yoch says that while Washington may have died anyway, 'the loss of blood guaranteed his death.' When Washington finally ordered the bleeding to end, he reportedly said 'Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.' His last words were: 'Tis well.'
For more information on George Washington's early life and his views on bleeding visit www.becominggeorgewashington.com.