Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

Three Stars out of Five. Recommended.

James A. Garfield was an unlikely selection for president in 1880, having won the Republican nomination only after he was drafted at the convention due to an electoral impasse.  Within months of the general election he was shot in a Washington, DC train station and subsequently died.

Millard presents a favorable view of Garfield, the man, Union Civil War General, husband and father, and President. Her glowing depiction recounts his unification of party factions and calm demeanor under duress. Unfortunately, the reluctant Garfield only served as president a few months before being killed by Charles Guitaeu, a mentally disturbed office seeker.

One subplot in the story is the poor surgical care that Garfield received following the shooting. Conjecture is that his wounds were not life-threatening and that he died of fulminant sepsis due to the unsanitary practices of Dr. W. Willard Bliss, his attending physician.  Bliss, the same physician who attended Abraham Lincoln following his shooting 16 years prior, did not ascribe to the latest medical advances about hand washing and sterilization of instruments that was advocated at that time by British physician Sir Joseph Lister.

Millard also describes the frantic efforts made by Alexander Graham Bell, the young teacher and inventor, who tried to devise a method for finding the errant bullet sitting in Garfield’s abdomen. Before xrays (invented 20 years hence by Marie Curie) doctors had no way to image the patient looking for foreign bodies such as shrapnel and ammunition rounds. Bell contrived a prototype metal detector using electric current and capacitors for doctors to identify metal fragments in soft tissue.

Dr. Bliss, while inclined to help Garfield, was reluctant to allow a non-physician like Bell to attend to his patient. The device was implemented incorrectly and therefore failed to detect the bullet. Bliss, the other physicians, Garfield’s family, the nation, and Bell all watched as the President deteriorated and finally died of overwhelming infection two months after the shooting.

Millard’s book is easily read and provides a concise account of the the seminal events of the period. My only misgiving is trivial, i.e., that her characters are simplistic, either paragons of virtue or despicable villains. Oddly, the killer Guiteau is perhaps the most complex persona presented, shown to be conflicted, ambitious and mentally disturbed. Alternatively, Garfield and Bell apparently have no faults and Bliss is seen only with contempt.

Regardless, this is an educational book regarding events in US history about which I was unfamiliar. Her style is similar to Erik Larsen or David McCullough. Recommended.

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