What kind of thread ties together Alexander Graham Bell, Helen Keller, Sir Joseph Lister, Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, the Statue of Liberty, and President James Garfield? Interestingly, the thread does exist, it is robust, and the tale of it is a complex one.

It is 1876, and the Centennial Celebration is in full swing in Philadelphia. The Statue of Liberty is there, albeit represented only by its hand that holds the torch. Ohio Congressman James Garfield, as ever thirsty for knowledge, is in attendance with his entire family.

While Garfield is strolling through the Machinery Hall, Alexander Graham Bell, eager to demonstrate his latest invention, a “new apparatus operated by the human voice,” is next door in the Main Exhibition Hall, struggling against near-impossible odds. He is exhausted, he suffers from a splitting headache, he has had to reconstitute his equipment because had arrived damaged or not at all; also, because he had registered late, he was only able to secure a display location in an obscure corner of the Hall.

Then, because of the extreme heat, the judges decide to call it a day. Bell, lurking near the judges’ table, knows that he is whipped.

Except that Emperor Dom Pedro II, who is at the Exhibition as well and also happens to be by the judges’ table, knows Bell, having met him in Boston.

How does the Emperor of Brazil know the young Scotsman? Because Bell, though an inventor, was primarily a talented teacher of the deaf, and it was in that context that the two men had first met. (Of note, Hellen Keller would refer to her meeting with Bell as “the door through which I should pass from darkness to light,” and would dedicate her autobiography to him.)

Dom Pedro espies Bell in the throng around the judges’ table, greets him and asks why he is there. Bell says that he hopes to demonstrate a new invention. Dom Pedro immediately declares that “they” must see it right away. He goes to where Bell’s apparatus is set up and the judges, unable to say no to a head of state, drag themselves along. Bell demonstrates his device by reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy into the microphone. Dom Pedro hears it through the primitive receiver. He is volubly astounded, and voilà, the telephone is born and Bell’s fame and future are assured.

But Dr. Joseph Lister, who is in Philadelphia to lecture on his antiseptic surgery process, is not so lucky. American surgeons, while remarkably inventive and advanced in terms of technique, see no need to sterilize instruments, wash hands, or even to keep themselves and their clothing clean. Poor Lister is met with grumbling and rejection.

Fast-forward to 1881.

A grandiose lunatic named Charles Guiteau, convinced that he is doing the nation a favor, shoots James Garfield, who has now been President for several months. The nation, however, is not grateful: in fact, it is profoundly shocked. Garfield, a Civil War hero, a truly honest and forward-looking man, not to mention the best chance for national healing the United States had had since Lincoln, is universally mourned. The jail in which Guiteau is incarcerated has to be protected by the Army to ensure someone does not assassinate him.

Garfield’s wound is not necessarily fatal, but the treatment proves to be. The doctors who attend Garfield repeatedly probe the wound with dirty fingers in search of the bullet. They keep the President in unclean surroundings and administer treatments that seem ludicrous today. And the President weakens steadily, worn down by worsening infection.

And, unfortunately, the scorned Dr. Lister is not invited to the treatment team…

Reenter Alexander Graham Bell. Because of the doctors’ fixation on finding the bullet, he is determined to help. He recalls that one of his early inventions, called an induction balance, had turned out to be sensitive to the presence of metal. He decides to improve the gizmo and bring it to the White House to help the doctors find the bullet. The device works well, but Dr. Bliss, the dictatorial attending physician who had appointed himself Garfield’s physician and whose reputation now rides on the President’s survival, is convinced that the bullet is on the right side of Garfield’s body. He therefore only allows Bell to search only on the right side. (The bullet, of course, is on the left side.)

Garfield, whose body is now riddled with huge pus-filled cavities, ultimately dies from septicemia. After an autopsy, the doctors finally admit that they had been wrong.

This is the plot – nay, a mere skeleton – of Candice Millard’s masterful Destiny of the Republic, first published in 2011. But the substance of the book is far more than that, giving as it does detailed insight into the main characters’ lives and a thorough and vivid appreciation of the era and its complicated and downright dirty politics. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, this is a book not to be missed.

About Michael J. Kubat

I'm a grumpy Czech-born clinical social worker who is vitally interested in the survival in the United States as a viable democracy and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
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