Why George Washington’s Doctors Prescribed Bloodletting During His Final Hours

Understanding the rationale for therapeutics in the past

“George Washington at Mount Vernon at the end of his life, 1799,” by Howard Pyle. Accessed through Digital Commonwealth

George Washington’s death:

“Bloodletting, 16th century.” Accessed through Wellcome Collections

The rationale behind bloodletting:

  • It rarely killed (patients who did die despite the procedure seldom died right after bloodletting).
  • In the absence of any way to look into the intact human body, blood was considered a very powerful marker of the body’s internal workings and state of affairs.
  • For both physicians and patients, bloodletting provided a sense of “something being done” to take control of the situation and effect improvements in it. Moreover, this “something” had a long and rich medical tradition behind it.
  • Since many ailments are self-limiting, the recovery of the sick person after a certain period of time provided an ex post facto validation of the therapy. Non-recovery was most often interpreted as the disequilibrium being just too strong, or the bloodletting being done inadequately.
“A family threatened by influenza is prepared for a large scale bloodletting. Colored etching, 18 — .” Accessed through Wellcome Collections

So did it “really” work?



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Kiran Kumbhar

Historian, physician. History, science, and healthcare; kindness, commonsense, and reason. Twitter @kikumbhar. Instagram @kikumbhar. Blog: kirankumbhar.com