The circumstances surrounding the death of George Washington… confuse and mislead scholars and novices alike. Misinformation is purported as fact and sold to the general public, only confusing the matter further. Washington died of a sore throat– illustrates the limitations of 18th century medicine and how his death could have been prevented. Washington was bled to death by his doctors– implies that common medical practices in 1799(five pints were taken) were responsible and that his death would have been prevented by modern medicine. Lost in all the speculation is the ailment that actually killed Washington.
In 1997, Dr. W. McKenzie Wallenborn of the University of Virginia School of Medicine performed an analysis of Washington’s symptoms and the course of his illness. His results show that far from a simple sore throat or lamentable bleeding, Washington’s demise was caused by an acute infection his doctors were ill-equipped to handle. He observed:
“I think that it is very reasonable and possible to make a determination of the disease process that was the cause of George Washington’s death. He had acute epiglottitis (supraglottitis) which is a severe, rapidly progressing infection of the epiglottis and surrounding tissues that may be quickly fatal because of sudden respiratory (airway) obstruction by the inflamed structures.”
An affliction that can be fatal by modern standards… Washington’s team of physicians: Dr. James Craik, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, an Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, had little or any options in treating their esteemed friend.