June 26, 2013 by bdetienne
I do not like the what-if game, but throughout history events take place that force this question to the surface of our mind. What if Michael Jordan had missed that 3 pointer at the end of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals? What if Beethoven had given up composing after he went deaf? What if the Axis Powers were victorious in World War II? Countless inquiries like these can be done and endless debates can ensue. Another what if question popped into my mind after reading Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic. What would America look like today if James Garfield had not died four months into his presidency, a little over two months after being shot in the back by Charles Guiteau?
Millard’s thrilling story traces Garfield’s remarkable life. How he emerged out of extreme poverty to become not only a college graduate, but a university professor and president by 26. How he became a successful Union general in the Civil War (despite no formal military training). How he never campaigned for political office yet was voted to nine terms in Congress. How he was not initially a candidate for president and was not interested in the office but begrudgingly accepted the nomination and won the 1880 election. But above all, Millard describes the events following Garfield’s assassination attempt.
Surprisingly, it was not the initial bullet wound that killed Garfield. In fact, Millard writes, if Garfield had been shot today, he not only would have survived, but would have been out of the hospital in a few days. But in the early 1880’s most of the medical world did not accept the fact that there were microorganisms called germs that could invade the body and cause damage. There were no sterile practices in place; often times the apron doctors wore and the tools they used were caked with blood and other bodily fluids on purpose (a sign of pride of the work they had performed on previous patients). Garfield was unintentionally killed by his own team of doctors.
Millard has composed a terrific narrative on the last two months of President James Garfield’s life. I felt like I was a spectator in the White House, standing in the back corner as the doctors furiously worked toward improving the president’s health. I would recommend you take the time to read this book. It will leave you wondering “What if?” as well.
[As much as I enjoyed this book, Millard’s debut title The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is even better. Exceptional book detailing the former president’s expedition exploring a new section of the Amazon River, which I reviewed on my previous blog.]