Doctor Willard Bliss was born on April 18, 1825, in Brutus, Cayuga County, New York, the son of Massachusetts natives Obediah Bliss Jr. (1792-1863) and Marilla Pool (1801-1857).
In 1820 Obediah was living in Savoy, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Obediah and Marilla were married in Savoy, Massachusetts on July 9, 1815. They eventually settled in New York and by 1830 Obediah was living in Hamilton, Madison County, New York. The family moved from New York to Ohio, and by 1840 Obediah and his family were living in Chagrin Falls, where D. Willard (as he was commonly known) entered the medical department of Western Reserve College and was graduated in 1845 as a physician. He began his medical practice in Chagrin Falls, Ohio but eventually moved to Cleveland where he attended the Cleveland Medical College from which he graduated in 1849.
D. Willard married Ohio-born Sophia Prentiss (1825-1887) on May 23, 1849, in Cleveland, and they had at least four children: Dr. Ellis Baker (1850-1919), Dr. Clara (1852-1940, Mrs. Finley), Willard “Willie” Prentiss (1854-1856), and Eugenia (1855-1901, Mrs. Milbourn).
By 1850 D. W. and Sophronia were living with their infant son in Chagrin Falls, where D. W. practiced medicine; that same his parents were also living in Chagrin Falls where Obediah was working as a manufacturer and D. Willard’s younger brother Zenas was living with his parents. Zenas, too, would become a physician and serve alongside his brother in the 3rd Michigan.
In 1851 Willard and his wife moved to Ionia, Ionia County, Michigan, and sometime between 1852 and 1854 Willard settled in Grand Rapids where he quickly became an established member of the medical community. In August of 1856 Dr. Bliss and his wife suffered the loss of their two-year-old son Willie.
By August of 1859, Dr. Bliss had located his office in Nevius’ Block on the east side of Monroe between Pearl and Justice Streets where he practiced as “Surgeon, Occulist and Aurist,” and he remained in that location through 1860, while he and his family were residing on the third floor of Miller’s Boarding House in Ledyard & Aldrich Block, also on Monroe Street and on the same side of the Street as his office.
The vast majority of labor in the middle of the nineteenth century was performed by hand, and trauma was one of the more common occupational hazards. Loss of a finger, a toe or sometimes a whole limb was an all-too-frequent occurrence in areas such as logging and indeed in agriculture in general, then still the predominant occupation in the United States. On January 5, 1856, the editor of the Enquirer reported the results of a recent surgical operation undertaken by Drs. Henderson and Bliss.
The poor fellow who was the subject is a Hollander well known about town under the appellation of “Jelka,” and until within the last year or two, was for a long time in the employ of A. D. Rathbone, Esq.
Nearly a year ago, he was kicked on the left leg by a horse, since which time the limb has continually grown worse, until at last it became necessary to amputate it, in order to save his life.
Doctors Bliss and Henderson performed the operation in capital style -- Dr. B., wielding the knife, and taking it off above the knee. The patient being under the influence of chloroform was not aware until told, that the major part of his limb was detached from his body. It was a painful sight to witness, and “it were well when done, that it should be done quickly,” which was done by the above named gentlemen, neatly and skillfully. We never saw chloroform administered before in a surgical operation, and we never wish to see another, unless it is administered. It is truly the sufferer’s solace, and a blessed painkiller.
In March of 1857 John Sliter, of Wyoming, Kent County, died following an accident while working as a sawyer in Mr. Haire's mill, in Georgetown some four miles below Grandville. Sliter had his right leg sawed off “through the upper portion of his thigh by a circular saw. The attendance of Dr. Bliss . . . was procured as soon as possible, who found the bone so severely fractured that he deemed amputation necessary. This operation was immediately performed, severing the leg as closely to the body as possible. The unfortunate patient lived but about an hour after the amputation was performed.”
And in late September of 1860, Dr. Bliss, “assisted by Drs. Shepherd, Bissell, and Mainard, of our city, and Dr. Z. Bliss, of Ionia, and Dr. Daniel Wooley, of Big Rapids, amputated the limb of Mr. James Robinson, of Big Rapids, at the Bridge Street House, on Wednesday last. Mr. R. has suffered several years with what is called ‘white swelling’; and it was found necessary to amputate the diseased limb just above the joint. The operation was quickly performed, while the patient was under the influence of ether.”
During the month of October of 1859 much of his time was taken up with testifying during a murder trial in Grand Rapids.
In addition to his professional interests, before the war Bliss had also been very active in several of the city’s musical circles and was well-known for his fine singing voice. Not surprisingly, Bliss was also involved in various musical productions in Grand Rapids and in February of 1858 was appointed along with several others to set up a school for amateur singers. The session was nine weeks long and was to be held at the New Church Temple.
Dr. Bliss also took a keen interest in the growing militia movement in western Michigan and in 1860 was appointed Regimental Surgeon for the 51st Regiment, Michigan Militia, under the command of Colonel Daniel McConnell, and which was headquartered in Grand Rapids.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, shortly after war broke out in April of 1861, and when it was announced that a regiment was forming in Grand Rapids, Dr. Bliss quickly offered his services. He enlisted at the age of 36 as Regimental surgeon at the organization of the 3rd Regiment on May 13, 1861, and was soon joined as assistant Regimental surgeon by his brother Zenas, a physician then living in Ionia County.
In addition to providing medical inspections to each man who wished to enlist, the regimental surgeons also provided medical information for distribution in the local newspapers. On May 1, the Enquirer published the following notice from regimental surgeons Drs. D. W. and Zenas Bliss, in which they wished to instruct the ladies of Grand Rapids as to how to make bandages, etc.
Actual war exists in our land, and the U.S. is engaged in an attempt to suppress rebellion, which exists in some portions of our Union, and to maintain the laws and support the dignity of the govt., and in this hour of peril, it behooves us all good citizens -- ladies included -- to make known by their deeds, whether they are for or against this, the land of their nativity and adoption.
Therefore, the undersigned, as Surgeons of the 3d Regiment of M. V. U. M., and in behalf of the Volunteer Soldiery of said regiment, issue this circular, asking all ladies who feel so disposed, to contribute bandages and lint, for the use of said regiment while in actual service.
DIRECTIONS - All bandages should be made of cotton cloth or muslin, bleached or unbleached. Old is preferable to new; if the former, it should be thoroughly washed. It should be soft, yet firm, smooth, strong, and not too yielding, divested of selvige, seams and ravelings, and should be torn (not cut) into strips varying in width from 2 and one-quarter to 2 and one-half inches, the ends of the strips lapped, and sewed together. The length of a bandage may vary from 6 to 12 yards -- ordinarily 10 yards -- and each bandage should be carefully, smoothly, evenly and tightly rolled up and pinned.
The lint may consist of old pieces of linen or muslin, divested of selvige, seams and ravelings, varying in size from that of the hand up to any other size convenient.
It is hoped and believed that every one can do a little in this noble service, and that a hearty response will be given to this call, and that you will show your devotion and loyalty to this govt. by sending in this small yet acceptable token, to be used if necessary in mitigating the sufferings of those who go, in this hour of peril, to defend the flag and honor of our nation.
We request that all donations be completely and carefully made up, and left at the office of Dr. Bliss of Grand Rapids, and the office of Dr. Bliss of Ionia, by Weds. evening, May 1st. Each package to be carefully labeled with the name of donor, the number of yards of bandages, number of pieces of lint, and number of papers of pins.
The 3rd Michigan infantry left Grand Rapids on Thursday, June 13, and shortly after the 3rd Michigan arrived in Washington on June 16, the Detroit Free Press carried a story concerning Bliss and his attention to the troops under his care. “Surgeon Bliss,” noted the editor, “deserves a great deal of credit for his untiring efforts to render the sick quarters as comfortable as possible. They are well supplied with straw beds, blankets, and pillows. Those in Michigan who have sick friends in the Third Regiment may rest assured that every care and attention will be bestowed upon them which circumstances permit. A large portion of the Regiment have suffered somewhat from change of climate, water and diet, but they are rapidly becoming accustomed to the change. Adjutant Earle is expected today with those who left behind at Grand Rapids on account of sickness. They accompany the Fourth Regiment.”
Yet apparently there had been rumors circulating around western Michigan that the men of the Third infantry were not receiving the best of medical care. It seems that certain allegations were made against the Regimental surgeons and their performance during the various actions along the Bull Run in northern Virginia between July 18 and July 21, 1861, and in reply Colonel McConnell, Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Stevens, Major Stephen Champlin and Quartermaster Robert Collins signed and sent an open letter dated August 7, to the Grand Rapids Enquirer, praising the two physicians.
The conduct [wrote the staff officers] of Dr. D. W. Bliss, Surgeon, and Z. E. Bliss, Assistant Surgeon, of this Regiment, during the late retreat from Bull Run, having been severely animadverted upon, and having now fully examined into the subject, we deem it just to those gentlemen to make the following statement of facts. During the battle of Thursday, when there was apprehended need of them by the Regiment, they were both on hand doing what was possible to be done for the wounded of our Regiment, and also of the Brigade; while Dr. Z. E. Bliss contrary to what is required of a surgeon, came upon the field to attend the wounded during the action, remained there for over an hour personally exposed to the musketry, shot, and shell of the enemy and remained there until it was deemed best to have him retire to the rear, where he would be less exposed and could render an efficient service.
Dr. D. W. Bliss was all that day at his proper post at the Brigade hospital, established in the rear of the line, attending to his duties as surgeon.
On Sunday, the day of the last battle of Bull Run, their services not being required by our Regiment beyond prescribing for a few sick, which duty performed, they were ordered by the Surgeon General to open a hospital at Centreville, and take charge of, and prescribe for the sick, and treat such of the wounded of other Regiments as should present themselves for treatment. They complied with this order, and did their duty faithfully that day, taking care of many sick and wounded. Sunday night the retreat, having been ordered, General Tyler, a general of the division who commanded that portion of the retreat, ordered them to move forward with the ambulances containing the wounded men, and attend to their wants during the retreat. This accounts for their severance from their Regiment during the retreat, and for their arrival in Washington in advance thereof. We think that the officer who ordered them off, under the circumstances, transcended his duty, and that in complying they had no other idea than that they were obliged to obey the order of a superior officer thus given. We make this statement in justice to them, and to end, if possible, whatever unfavorable impression may be entertained toward them by those not acquainted with the facts of the case.
Dr. Bliss returned home to Grand Rapids briefly at the end of July, 1861, possibly to settle his affairs and prepare to move his family east. In September he was promoted to Major and Surgeon, United States Volunteers (probably on September 21), and on October 15, 1861, was transferred and promoted to Brigade surgeon, serving on the staff of Brigadier General Israel Richardson. He claimed after the war that while he was medical director of the Third Division, Third Corps, to which the 3rd Michigan was attached, he tented with his brother Zenas who had replaced him as regimental surgeon in the 3rd Michigan.
He was reportedly in charge of the division hospital at Savage Station, Virginia, during the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on May 31, 1862, but by late summer had been placed in charge of Armory Square Hospital in Washington, DC.
According to Allen Foote, a member of Company B, 3rd Michigan infantry, who had been wounded at Fair Oaks and was being returned to Virginia,
In going through Washington we passed by the Armory Square Hospital, then in charge of Dr. Bliss. I “fell out” and went into his office. Fortunately I found him at his desk. When he looked at me he recognized me at once and said, “See here, young man, this will never do. You will ruin my reputation. I reported you mortally wounded at Fair Oaks and have had you dead and buried in the Chickahominy swamp for six months.” I said, “I will improve your reputation by giving you an opportunity to resurrect me.” I then told him I did not want to be a “condemned yankee” and wanted him to find a way to save me from going to the Invalid Camp. He immediately called the hospital steward, ordered him to put me in a bed and keep me there four days. I protested, saying I was perfectly able to be about. The Doctor said to me in an undertone, “You stay in bed four days; by that time I will have an order reassigning you to do duty in my office.”
D. Willard spent most of his military career in the hospitals in and around Washington, but primarily he was in charge of Armory Square hospital (located opposite the Smithsonian Institute in Washington). According to one postwar report, it was at “Armory Square hospital in Washington, where he won renown by the excellence of his practice, and its large success. In this practice he became thoroughly experienced in the treatment of gunshot wounds in all sorts of cases, and with all sorts of constitutions.”
According to Sarah Low, who had been a nurse at the Union Hotel hospital in Georgetown but who had just transferred to Armory Square, the hospital
was a great improvement in every way over the Union Hotel. “The ward at Armory is bright and cheerful looking compared to the dismal condition at the Union where the air was so bad. This is a new hospital and an excellent one. Amory is nearly always filled as it is near the boat landing. The surgeon, ward master and attendants of my ward are very kind and attentive to patients. The patient’s comforts depend so much on the surgeon.”
Dr. D. Willard Bliss, U.S. Volunteer, who had been surgeon in the 3rd Michigan Infantry, was the surgeon in charge of the Armory Square hospital and the doctors in the wards were most considerate. “Dr. Bliss insists his nurses go out into the fresh air and when we have very sick patients, he told us to go out for a walk every day.”
It is quite possible that Bliss moved his family to Washington, DC, shortly after his promotion and transferal since he did not return to Michigan again for three years.
In late April of 1863, according to Walt Whitman, who served as a hospital steward at Armory Square Dr. Bliss was rumored to have been arrested for allegedly defrauding the government. O April 24, Army Inspector A. C. Hamilton issued a “Report of Investigation against Surgeon D. W. Bliss,” in which he recommended that Bliss be removed from his command “for allegedly accepting a $500 bribe, received for recommending the introduction into the hospital of a stove invented by Mr. Kingsland.” Bliss was placed under arrest on April 27 and confined in the Old Capitol prison, within sight of his own home. On May 27, Whitman wrote a friend that “Dr. Bliss was removed from Armory [Square hospital] and put for a few days in the Old Capitol prison -- there is now some talk of his going back to Armory.”
Bliss was cleared of the charges on June 2 and reinstated to his command of Armory Square.
On August 11 Whitman reported that Dr. Bliss was presented with a set of surgical instruments. “The presentation,” Whitman told a friend, “to Dr. Bliss came off last Saturday evening -- it was in ward F -- the beds were all cleared out, the sick put in other wards -- the room cleaned, hung with greens, etc., looked very nice -- the instruments were there on exhibition the afternoon. I took a view of them, they were in four cases, & looked very fine -- in the evening they were presented -- speeches were made by one & another -- there was a band of music etc. . . .” Shortly afterward, Whitman noted, Bliss left for three weeks of furlough up north, presumably to New York. Whitman thought Bliss “a very fine operating surgeon -- sometimes he performs several amputations or other operations of importance in a day -- amputations, blood, death are nothing here.”
On April 3,1864 Sarah Low wrote to her Aunt,
A week ago Wednesday evening we had an arrival of very sick and wounded patients, two of them died, one a very sick case of typhoid fever and the other a man with a wounded leg. I had the widows of these men to write to.” In going to another ward to check on a patient of mine who had been moved there “I found a patient with a wounded hand, sitting up in bed in great distress with his throat, he beckoned me to him,” and asked if I would not ask the Doctor to give him something to relieve him. By the time I could find a Doctor this patient was very bad. A Doctor finally came in and a moment after, Dr. Bliss happened to follow who recommended treatment. The patient began to hiccup and was dying. In a moment Dr. Bliss made an incision in the patient’s throat and inserted a tube. “Brooks, the patient, was restored to life breathing through a silver tube in his throat instead of through his mouth and nose.” The lady in charge of this ward is at home on a visit and if I had not come in Brooks would have died without ever seeing a surgeon. I have been giving him constant attention. Brooks disease is the same one General Washington died of. It has been said he died of Quincy but he did not. We shall never cease to regret that Dr. Bliss had not been there to have performed this operation, for if he had General Washington might be alive today.
On August 24, 1864, the Eagle reported that he “arrived in our city this morning. The Doctor returns after an absence of some three years to pass a short time, we believe, visiting his relatives and friends in this city. The Doctor was a practitioner here ere the war commenced, and has, by his talents and skill, won a deservedly high and enviable position in the Government service, and is considered one of the best Surgeons connected therewith.” Bliss was brevetted colonel of United States volunteers, on March 13, 1865.
After the war Dr. Bliss remained Washington to practice medicine, although he may have returned briefly to Grand Rapids in January of 1867, when either he (or his brother Zenas) may have been under consideration to the “Chair of Surgery” at the University of Michigan, vacated by Dr. Moses Gunn. However, Walt Whitman noted that at least by May of 1867, Dr. D. W. Bliss was practicing in Washington.
D. W. resumed his practice in Washington and by 1870 he was living with his wife and two daughters in Washington’s 2nd Ward.
Controversy once again haunted Dr. Bliss and he became something of a scandal within the Washington medical community for his unwillingness to allow the medical bureaucracy to stifle research and speculation into, among other things, an alleged cure for cancer called “cundurango.” It was also claimed that this bureaucracy was under the influence of former confederates. According to at least one source, in 1871 he was finally expelled from the Medical Association of the District of Columbia for his open criticism of the medical establishment. On July 13, the Democrat reported that
“There were several serious charges against him [said the report issued by the Medical Association of the District of Columbia] one of which was quackery in trying to force a medicine upon the country which he knew had not the virtue claimed for it. As the Committee on Cundurango was not prepared to report, the Association took up another charge, that of consulting in the case of Vice President Colfax, with Dr. C. C. Cox, who had been previously refused admission into said Association on account of his holding a seat in the Board of Health with Dr. Verdi, a homeopathic physician, and for this expelled him”
Concerning Cundurango, which has excited the attention of the medical profession throughout the country, a learned physician says,
It is our belief that no medicine will ever be found to cure schirrus, or cancer. It is impossible that this should be so from the very nature of the case. The malignant cell growth which constitutes schirrus, or cancer, is a hereditary disease, depending upon the physical constitution of the individual. What tuberculous deposits is to the brain and bone in children, and to the lungs and intestines in adults, cancerous degeneration is to men and women of mature age. It can only be cured by a power that can removed its cause -- i.e., that can change the whole texture of the organism. Cundurango can never do this.
The next day, the Democrat wrote that Bliss had been expelled
ostensibly because he met in consultation with another physician of Washington not of the ‘regular’ school, but who holds a position upon the Board of Health with a homeopathic practitioner. But the real reason of the expulsion is political, and springs from the ex-rebel element which practically rules in that medical society. Dr. Bliss has been an ardent advocate of recognizing real merit wherever found, and therefore of admitting well qualified colored physicians into the association. He is not a mealy-mouthed nor timid man, but manly and outspoken in his sentiments, which, unhappily, are not politically in full accord with those of General Lee's staff surgeons, one of whom, we are told, is a prominent member of that association. This may account in a measure for the virus of some of the accounts sent out adverse to the new cancer cure which Dr. Bliss has been trying with what he claims to be excellent results. We have already given the claims on both sides, respecting the cundurango, and need not repeat them. As to the expulsion, it is really an honor for which the Doctor is to be congratulated.
Bliss quickly rose to the challenge and on July 27, the Eagle carried a story in which Bliss sought to defend his position.
D. W. Bliss has replied through the Washington Chronicle to some of the attacks which have been made upon his reputation in connection with the new cancer remedy, Cundurango. He denounces as false and slanderous the statement that he ‘has diligently published for selfish ends extravagant accounts of the marvelous efficiency of this South American product, knowing it at the same time to be utterly worthless.’ He also denies that he refused to cooperate with the medical society in testing its virtues. As to the report set afloat by the correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette to the effect that the Minister of Ecuador owned the only accessible lands where the Cundurango could be procured, and that he, with other interested parties was striving to introduce it for speculative purposes; the Dr. declares that the Minister does not own an acre of land there, if anywhere. He further says that he is willing to bide his time and the verdict of the public concerning both the value of the new medicine and the act of expelling him by the rebel-ridden Medical Association.
Throughout the fall of 1871 the controversial “cundurango cure” held the attention of many in the Grand Rapids community, and around the country as well. On October 6, the Eagle reprinted a story originally carried in the Chicago Tribune:
“A citizen of high standing took his wife, who had been long afflicted with cancer, to Washington, to be treated by Dr. Bliss. Her case was a very serious one, indicating a speedy termination in one way or the other. She tried the cundurango remedy, and patiently waited the result. In less than two weeks the cancer exhibited alarming signs form bleeding. Dr. Bliss could not account for the change, and an immediate operation was resolved upon. The knife soon explained the condition, which the cancer had assumed. An immense growth had become entirely separated from flesh, but at the same time had prevented the latter from healing, and the flow of blood was from unhealed flesh. As soon as the cancer was removed the flesh beneath was found apparently free from disease. Comparatively little pain resulted form the operation. The lady rapidly recovered her strength, and is now at her home in [Chicago], not only free from every sign or symptom of cancer, but enjoying a degree of health to which she has been a stranger for years. The theory is that cundurango had the effect to uproot and throw-off the cancerous growth, which had attained large proportions.”
Although a professional pariah, Bliss nonetheless felt strongly enough about the product that he continued to defend its merits, but always within reason. While in Grand Rapids in early October, visiting his sister, Mrs. Wenham, Dr. Bliss continued to affirm
with great confidence, his belief that the "Cundurango" is to become a specific for all scrofulous diseases, the same as the chincone - quinine - is a specific for the treatment of agues. He claims that it is simply the best alternative, or blood purifier, yet discovered and upon this he stakes his professional reputation. It is a bark of a vine -- which grows very like a grapevine. His first knowledge of this bark came from the Ecuador Minister, at Washington, who at the time was a patient of Dr. Bliss. From him he received a small package of the bark and the Doctor took it immediately to the residence of Vice President Colfax whose mother was then dying of cancer. That was the first introduction of the "Cundurango" as a curative agent in this country. At that time Dr. Bliss knew nothing of its medicinal virtues, but advised it to be used on the strength of the information given him by the Ecuador Minister. The case was a desperate one, and he told the Vice President that his mother's life might be saved by the use of the remedy. At least he felt assured it would do no harm -- and the result proved that "Cundurango" was a specific for cancer.
Dr. Bliss has now on his books 800 cases of cancer, and 3,000 orders for Cundurango from all parts of the world. He claims the remedy is equally as efficacious for all scrofulous diseases, as for cancer.
One of the worst cases of cancer was that of the wife of a prominent Chicago banker. It was a bleeding cancer, and would weigh from 5 to 7 pounds. Eight weeks ago she applied for Cundurango, and on Sunday last, when Chicago was a great and prosperous city, the Doctor attended this lady to church, and she stated to him that her health was better than it had been for years. The wife of a prominent physician of Buffalo, who was dying of cancer, wrote privately and secretly to new York for a small quantity of Cundurango. She commenced taking it without the knowledge of her husband, and in the course of a few weeks commenced growing better. We saw a letter from this lady's husband, addressed to Dr. Bliss, acknowledging the facts, and ordering more of the Cundurango, and confessing that its merits were marked and its curative powers surprising.
As we have said, the Doctor only claims that this remedy is simply a blood purifier, and the best yet discovered, and he predicts that in a few years it will be in universal use by the medical profession.
Bliss’ advertisements for the “cure” were, however, worded with greater emphasis: “Cundurango! The wonderful remedy for Cancer, Syphilis, Scrofula, Ulcers, Salt Rebum, and All Other Chronic Blood Diseases.” The reader was advised to write for the product, care of “Bliss, Keene & co., 60 Cedar Street, New York. (Apparently his brother Zenas was also involved in the company, possibly as an investor.)
Following his expulsion Willard returned to Grand Rapids and reportedly resumed his practice in the city. However, the “Cundurango” cure eventually disappeared, and with it went the controversy attached to Bliss’s involvement with the product. By 1880 he was working as a physician in Washington and living with his wife on F Street Northwest; also living with them were his son Ellis, his daughter Elenor and his daughter Eugenia Wilburn and her husband George and their son Paul – as well as numerous servants and boarders.
He was nominally returned to the fold of the medical community in the District of Columbia, and by the summer of 1881 was in charge of the medical staff of four other physicians in personal attendance to President Garfield who was mortally wounded by an assassin.
Less than four months after his inauguration, President Garfield arrived at the Washington railroad depot on July 2, 1881, to catch a train for a summer's retreat on the New Jersey seashore. As Garfield made his way through the station, Charles Guiteau raced from the shadows and fired two shots point blank into the president. One grazed Garfield's arm; the other lodged in his abdomen. Exclaiming, "My God, what is this?" the president collapsed to the floor remaining fully conscious, but in a great deal of pain.
The first doctor on the scene administered brandy and spirits of ammonia, causing the president to promptly vomit. Then D. W. Bliss, a leading Washington doctor, appeared and inserted a metal probe into the wound, turning it slowly, searching for the bullet. The probe became stuck between the shattered fragments of Garfield's eleventh rib, and was removed only with a great deal of difficulty, causing great pain. Then Bliss inserted his finger into the wound, widening the hole in another unsuccessful probe. It was decided to move Garfield to the White House for further treatment.
Leading doctors of the age flocked to Washington to aid in his recovery, sixteen in all. Most probed the wound with their fingers or dirty instruments. Though the president complained of numbness in the legs and feet, which implied the bullet was lodged near the spinal cord, most thought it was resting in the abdomen. The president's condition weakened under the oppressive heat and humidity of the Washington summer combined with an onslaught of mosquitoes from a stagnant canal behind the White House. It was decided to move him by train to a cottage on the New Jersey seashore.
Shortly after the move, Garfield's temperature began to elevate; the doctors reopened the wound and enlarged it hoping to find the bullet. They were unsuccessful. By the time Garfield died on September 19, his doctors had turned a three-inch-deep, harmless wound into a twenty-inch-long contaminated gash stretching from his ribs to his groin and oozing more pus each day. He lingered for eighty days, wasting away from his robust 210 pounds to a mere 130 pounds. The end came on the night of September 19. Clawing at his chest he moaned, "This pain, this pain," while suffering a major heart attack. The president died a few minutes later.
Garfield's physicians did not serve him well. It seems each of his 16 attendants wanted to literally get their hands into him - to prod and grope his wound in an attempt to find the illusive bullet. Infection invariable set in. Internal sores developed - oozing pus and requiring periodic lancing in order to reduce their size. Medicine had not yet fully accepted the relationship between germs and disease. Operations were routinely performed without benefit of surgical gloves, masks, sterile instruments, or any antiseptics to protect the patient. Of more immediate concern to the patient, operations were performed without any means of deadening the pain. The patient was left to his or her own devices to cope with the trauma of surgery.
Garfield was not a particularly popular president. His short span of office had not been long enough for the public to form an opinion one way or the other. However, the stoic manner in which he endured his wounds warmed the popular attitude towards him.
Garfield's chief physician, Dr. D. W. Bliss recounts how the president coped with his condition:
"At this time, as is known, a simple but painful operation was rendered necessary by the formation of a superficial pus-sac. When, after consultation, I informed the President of the intention to use the knife, he with unfailing cheerfulness replied: 'Very well; whatever you say is necessary must be done.' When I handed the bistoury to one of the counsel, with the request that he make the incision. Without an anesthetic, and without a murmur, or a muscular contraction by the patient, the incision was made. He quietly asked the results of the operation, and soon sank into a peaceful slumber. This operation, though simple in itself, was painful, and the manner in which it was borne by the President in his enfeebled condition was, perhaps, as good an instance as any of the wonderful nervous control which characterized his whole illness. This power of mind over body was also daily exhibited at the dressings of his wound, which were unavoidably painful, and yet invariably borne without indication of discomfort; and also at subsequent operations, always painful."
When the decision was made to move the president to New Jersey, an English nobleman offered the use of his twenty-room home on the seashore. Special track was laid from the railroad's mainline to the door of the home. During the early hours of September 6, hushed crowds lined Pennsylvania Avenue as Garfield was moved by carriage from the White House to the railroad depot.
Dr. Bliss continues his story:
Mrs. Garfield sat by the side of her husband during the first part of the trip, cheering and reassuring him as no one else could, and visited him afterward, frequently, from her own car. On arriving at the track recently laid to the Francklyn [?] Cottage, we were surrounded by a large concourse of people, who braved the heat of the day in the anxiety lest the journey might have resulted disastrously. The engine had not weight and power sufficient to push us up the steep grade. Instantly hundreds of strong arms caught the cars, and silently, but resistlessly, rolled the three heavy coaches up to the level. Arriving at the cottage, the President was placed upon a stretcher, and borne under the canopy previously arranged, to the room wherein the remainder of a noble life was spent."
During the evening of September 16, Dr. Bliss passed the time reading when a servant rushed in announcing a change in the President's condition:
"At 10:10 I was looking over some of the wonderful productions of the human imagination which each mail brought me, when the faithful Dan suddenly appeared at the door of communication, and said:
'General Swaim wants you quick!' He preceded me to the room, took the candle from behind the screen near the door, and raised it so that the light fell full upon the face, so soon to settle in the rigid lines of death. Observing the pallor, the upturned eyes, the gasping respiration, and the total unconsciousness, I, with uplifted hands, exclaimed, 'My God, Swaim! The President is dying!' Turning to the servant, I added, 'Call Mrs. Garfield immediately, and on your return, Doctors Agnew and Hamilton.' On his way to Mrs. Garfield's room, he notified Colonel Rockwell, who was the first member of the household in the room. Only a moment elapsed before Mrs. Garfield was present. She exclaimed, 'Oh! what is the matter?' I said, 'Mrs. Garfield, the President is dying.' Leaning over her husband and fervently kissing his brow, she exclaimed, 'Oh! Why am I made to suffer this cruel wrong?'
While summoning Mrs. Garfield, I had in vain sought for the pulse at the wrist, next at the carotid artery, and last by placing my ear over the region of the heart. Restoratives, which were always at hand, were instantly resorted to. In almost every conceivable way it was sought to revive the rapidly yielding vital forces. A faint, fluttering pulsation of the heart, gradually fading to indistinctness, alone rewarded my examinations. At last, only moments after the first alarm, at 10:35, I raised my head from the breast of my dead friend and said to the sorrowful group, 'It is over.'
Noiselessly, one by one, we passed out, leaving the broken-hearted wife alone with her dead husband. Thus she remained for more than an hour, gazing upon the lifeless features, when Colonel Rockwell, fearing the effect upon her health, touched her arm and begged her to retire, which she did.
After Garfield's death his physicians submitted a bill of $85,000 to the Senate. The Senators authorized a payment of only $10,000. Many of them referred to the doctors as quacks.
Dr. Bliss also attended several prominent members of the Senate as well. “He was the family physician,” noted the Eagle, “of Senator Chandler; and he has been the regular medical attendant of many of the most noted men in Washington, including several Presidents; also he was called to the bedside of the later Senator Morton, and attended him in his last sickness. For many years he . . . occupied a prominent position upon the Board of Health at Washington.”
But tragedy continued to plague Willard throughout much of the last years of his life. Zenas died of consumption in 1876 and in 1886 he was residing at Willard’s Hotel in Washington and during a trip west suffered a near-fatal accident in Cleveland, Ohio, after which he returned to Washington to recover. His wife Sophia died in 1887.
Willard’s personal losses were compounded by financial setbacks. In regards to the settlement of accounts for attending President Garfield, in December of 1882 he told a reporter “that while he could not speak of his associates, he could say distinctly for himself that he should not accept the $6,500 [allowed by the Garfield claim board].” He added that he “would take what his services were worth, or he would go unpaid.” he further observed that the board’s action was an “insult” and that “the attempt to deprive him of compensation that he was entitled to was a fraud.” He claimed that he was making an average of $1500 per month which rose to $2500 to $3000 per month when Congress was in session, and that he had to suspend his practice entirely to attend to the President. He further added that this had cost him some six months’ worth of earnings since, unlike a lawyer who can postpone cases, a doctor cannot, and thus the monies went to someone with a private practice.
Congress, however, refused to increase the appropriations for the compensation of those who attended Garfield, and Bliss’ practice never regained its strength and volume it had had in his early days in Washington, although he continued to practice medicine up until his death.
No pension seems to be available.
Dr. Bliss was a widower when he died of apoplexy at 7:15 a.m. on February 21, 1889, in Washington, DC, presumably at the Willard Hotel.
Following his death in 1889, the Democrat observed that Bliss’s final years had indeed not been happy ones. “The death of Dr. Bliss,” wrote the paper, “recalls the popular superstition that fate seems to pursue everybody who was even remotely connected with the death of Garfield and the trial and hanging of Guiteau. Dr. Bliss ten years ago was a vigorous, hearty, prosperous man. Since the great patient of his time and skill died he has suffered nothing but misfortune. He lost his practice. Congress refused him his fee and gave him but a small one; his wife died; he himself met with a severe array of misfortunes and now he dies suddenly himself. He always thought Congress had treated him shamefully in cutting down his fee and his heirs may get some of the money which is still available and unexpended.” Still, “Throughout his life Dr. Bliss always spoke with affection of the years he lived in Michigan.”
Willard was buried in Rock Creek cemetery in Washington.