Review of Ira Rutkow’s James A Garfield

A unique look at our twentieth President, Ira Rutkow’s biography of James A Garfield, part of the America Presidents series published by Henry Holt and Company, is both a valuable introduction to Garfield’s life and an assessment of the medical treatment and conditions that led to his death and to Charles Guiteau’s, Garfield’s assassin’s, assertion that “the doctors ought to be indicted for murdering James A Garfield, and not me.”

Rutkow, a professor of surgery and author of several books dealing with Civil War surgery and a history of American surgery and medicine, traces Garfield’s life from his birth to his painful and agonizing death several months after being shot by Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington D.C. A man who was a college professor and president, a congressman, and a civil war General, Garfield was seen by some as a rising star who was Presidential material.

In his acknowledgements Rutkow notes that this book was “originally intended as a behind-the-scenes-story of the medical aspects of the Garfield assassination.” But goes on to say that at the suggestion of series editor Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr, became a political biography.

The result is an essential looking at both shortened Presidency as well as a glance into a major transition of American medicine and the nation as a whole during what is referred to as the “Guilded Age” of American politics and history.

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