What Killed George Washington?

On December 14, 1799, George Washington died at his home after a brief illness and after losing about 40 percent of his blood. So what killed the 67-year-old former President?

Modern medical experts are focused on several likely reasons for why Washington fell ill and died in a 21-hour period. But the illness as diagnosed by his physicians isn’t one of those likely causes of death. And it was the same group of physicians that let massive amounts of Washington’s blood in an attempt to cure him. What is known is this, based on contemporary accounts, including those of Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary. Two days earlier, an apparently healthy Washington rode around his estate at Mount Vernon on a cold, miserable day. According to Lear, Washington decided to stay in his wet clothes so he could be on time for dinner.

Over night, Washington woke his wife Martha to say he was feeling very sick, and that he could hardly breathe or talk on his own. The former President asked his overseer, Albin Rawlins, to bleed him. Doctors then arrived and bled him four more times over the next eight hours, with a total blood loss of 40 percent.

Washington also gargled with a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter; he inhaled a steam of vinegar and hot water; and his throat also was swabbed with a salve and a preparation of dried beetles. An enema was also used. By late afternoon, Washington knew he was dying and asked for his will.

Washington’s last words, said Lear, were spoken around 10 p.m. on December 14: “’I am just going! Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead.” Then, “Do you understand me? . . . Tis well!’”

Since Washington’s death in 1799, medical practitioners have tried to ascertain what killed the former President so quickly. At the time, Washington’s doctors considered four possible reasons for his demise, and the consensus was cynanche trachealis, also known as the croup, an inflammation of the glottis, larynx or upper part of the trachea that obstructed Washington’s airway.

But over the years, different theories emerged. In 1917, one doctor theorized that Washington died from diphtheria, and a decade later, another theory arose that Washington suffered from “septic sore throat, probably of streptococcic origin, associated with acute edema of the larynx



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