James Garfield, Modern Medicine, and Economics
July 31, 2014
James Garfield has never resonated with me before now. He was President only 120 days (less than three months) before an assassin’s bullet incapacitated him. He died two months later. He was thus always a footnote in my history books.
But learning about his life and death has been eye-opening.
Candice Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2012) raises two key points: The first is that Garfield was truly an exceptional individual, a virtuous and learned man we might all want to see in charge.
He never wanted to be president, but took it on with honesty and the drive to clean up the scourge of a corrupt political machine. One wonders what might have happened had he served two terms.
Second, and most importantly, Garfield did not have to die. His death was clearly the result of medical malpractice.
Five years before the attack on Garfield, doctors in the U.S. had learned from European colleagues about the dangers of bacteria and the use of antiseptics to prevent the spread of infection. But Garfield’s doctor distrusted modern theories of invisible germs, preferring instead to repeatedly probe the bullet wound with his bare, unwashed fingers. Garfield died of massive infection. The doctor clung to his reputation and refused to listen to facts.
The parallel with economics is open to interpretation. What viewpoints do economists hold today that are unsupported by the evidence of facts and history? Are we limited by our outdated ideologies?
One questionable doctrine is that of austerity in the face of economic depression—which seems as close to blood-letting as we can get today. Another is the doctrine that the market will automatically provide its own safeguards and self-correct. That is assuredly true in the long run, but not in a relevant time horizon.
One of the alleged silver linings of Garfield’s death is that doctors, reviewing his autopsy, became convinced that medical malpractice had been the cause of death. This led to a rapid change in medical practice.
Will we also see a similar conviction emerge after the results of the Great Depression of 2008?
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