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J Hist Neurosci. 2006 Jun;15(2):77-91.

Death of a president and his assassin--errors in their diagnosis and autopsies.

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  • 1The Ohio State University, Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities, Columbus, Ohio 43201-1654, USA.


On July 2, 1881, Charles Julius Guiteau shot President James Abram Garfield in the right flank. The President died because of infection produced by the unsterile fingers and probes repeatedly inserted into the wound. The major complaint of the wounded President was intractable pain in his legs and feet. This symptom failed to alert the doctors to the possibility of vertebral and spinal cord injury. Garfield died with sepsis after 80 days of intense national concern, and for the patient there was psychological, physical, and nutritional deprivation. His autopsy revealed the bullet was not in the pelvis as his doctors had expected, but adjacent to the first lumbar vertebra it had shattered. The trial and execution of Guiteau split the medical community into those that considered him insane and those who felt execution was justified. Guiteau was delusional and his brain revealed chronic inflammation and histological features suggestive of syphilis. At the time, and since, the propriety of the execution has been questioned.

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