George Washington & Leeches

George Washington & Leeches

Bloodletting was commonly practiced in the United States during the time of George Washington. It Washington played a major role in the death of the father of our country who died at his home on December 14, 1799. The 67 year old Washington had developed a fever and laryngitis in the middle of the night. In the morning, his doctor, Doctor James Craik was summoned and Dr. George Rawlins arrived to care for him until Craik could get there.

Dr. Rawlins examined Washington and decided to bleed him. When there was no change a mixture of medicine was applied to his throat without change. Dr. Craik arrived and applied a blister of cantharides externally to the throat. When that didn’t help he decided to bleed Washington a second time. Seeing no improvement Craik bled him a third time. Later Dr. Elisha Dick arrived and Washington was bled again. Another doctor, Dr. Gustavus Brown came to assist. The doctors applied blisters to his legs and feet and a poultice to his throat without change. During this treatment, some five pints of blood, about one half of an adult blood supply, had been withdrawn for the throat infection over a two day period by the doctors. It’s believed that leeches were used for removal of blood from Washington’s body as that was a common way of bleeding a patient. Most historians and medical authorities have concluded that Washington’s loss of blood from the bleeding was a major cause of his death.

This historical event is the basis of the joke about the lawyer and doctor disputing the quality of their professions with the lawyer retorting "When your professional forefathers were putting leeches on George Washington’s ass, my professional forefathers were writing the Declaration of Independence."

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