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George Washington and Medicine

Class 6: Final Illness and Death


In December 1799, having been outdoors in wet weather and remaining for some hours in his damp clothing, Washington developed a sore throat, but dismissed his ailment as inconsequential. However, he soon developed a serious respiratory illness, and although he was attended by his long-time physician, Dr. Craik, and other medical professionals, their repeated drawing of his blood failed to relieve the obstruction of his airway, and he died within forty-eight hours of his first indication of illness. As news of Washington’s death spread, the nation was plunged into mourning, and throughout the United States politicians and private citizens alike commemorated the loss of the “Father of His Country” with eulogies and memorabilia. Leon Eisenberg’s brief study of Benjamin Rush and the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793 shows that even Rush, America’s leading medical authority of the late 18th century, was strongly committed to bloodletting as a remedy for many illnesses. Peter R. Henriques’s article explores Washington’s thoughts about death and the afterlife as he imagined the end of his life drawing near. Andrew Burstein’s chapter depicts the intensity of public mourning in the wake of the death of Washington and those of other heroes of the American Revolution.

Class Resources
  • Burstein, Andrew. “Immortalizing the Founding Fathers: The Excesses of Public Eulogy.” In Mortal Remains: Death in Early America. Edited by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Eisenberg, Leon. “Furor Therapeuticus: Benjamin Rush and the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.” American Journal of Psychiatry  164 (2007): 552–555.
  • Henriques, Peter R. “The Final Struggle between George Washington and the Grim King: Washington’s Attitude toward Death and an Afterlife.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography  107 (1999): 73–97.
Discussion Questions
  1. Why were even the most experienced and intellectually sophisticated early American physicians so convinced of the virtues of bloodletting, and how did the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793 begin to change medical thought on this subject?
  2. What thoughts regarding death and the afterlife did Washington express to himself or to others in his old age, and how typical were these attitudes of men of his time and place?
  3. Do you agree with Andrew Burstein that public response to the deaths of Washington and other “Founding Fathers” was “excessive”? Why were so many Americans so strongly affected by the loss of these now quite elderly men?
Additional Activity

Read Henry Lee’s A Funeral Oration on the Death of George Washington. How does Lee’s eulogy help us to understand how Americans were emotionally affected by the death of Washington?

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