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A Prescription For the Resurrection of George Washington

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William Thornton was the First Architect of the United States Capitol, and is largely responsible for what became the final design of the Capitol Building. Thornton was also friends with George Washington and a trained surgeon, though he was not Washington’s doctor. Nevertheless, when Washington became seriously ill, and efforts to treat him were at an impasse, Thornton was sent for to see if he could help.

By the time Thornton arrived, Washington had passed away, and due to the extreme cold, his body was already frozen. Thornton proposed thawing the body in warm water, performing a posthumous tracheostomy, and then infusing Washington’s body with lamb’s blood, but his recommendation was not seconded.

Death of Washington, Dec: 14. A.D. 1799. Lithograph by N. Currier 1846. //
Death of Washington, Dec: 14. A.D. 1799. Lithograph by N. Currier. 1846. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

In any case, it was hard to do worse than the physicians that attended Washington while he was dying, whose treatments included draining Washington of almost two and a half liters of blood and applying a blistering agent called cantharidin, which probably wasn’t very pleasant or helpful for treating a swollen epiglottitis. Washington died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67, having failed by only a few weeks to fulfill his promise to live to see 1800. After explaining his final wishes to his secretary, Tobias Lear, Washington’s final words were “Tis Well.”

As Bailey noted in her post, Washington’s final resting place at Mount Vernon later became a point of contention. Congress requested to move Washington’s body from its resting place in Mount Vernon to a tomb underneath what is now the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, but Washington’s relatives refused the request.

Source consulted:

Schmidt P J, Leacock A G. Forgotten transfusion history: John Leacock of Barbados BMJ 2002; 325 :1485


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