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Source: Merck’s Archives of Materia Medica and Drug Therapy
Source type: journal
Document type: editorial
Document title: “President McKinley’s Death”
Author(s): anonymous
Date of publication: October 1901
Volume number: 3
Issue number: 10
Pagination: 373-74

“President McKinley’s Death.” Merck’s Archives of Materia Medica and Drug Therapy Oct. 1901 v3n10: pp. 373-74.
full text
McKinley assassination (personal response); William McKinley (personal character); McKinley assassination (public response); William McKinley (death, cause of); William McKinley (medical care: personal response).
Named persons
James A. Garfield; William McKinley.


President McKinley’s Death

NOTHING that has occurred within the present century so completely shows the limitations of human power in its attempted mastery of nature as the calamity that has left this nation in deep mourning over its former chief executive. We are proud, and rightly so, of our educational facilities and of the influence that education exerts upon the moral nature of our people, yet it was one educated in American schools who in so cowardly a manner assassinated our beloved President. In defiance of our best efforts to inculcate reason and civilization into the lowest strata of the community by free education, a savage grew up among us capable of doing a deed that makes humanity shudder. The fact that his parents were foreign born, and that this foreign influence may have affected the result, does not materially alter the case. Our powerlessness to save ourselves from such deeds by education alone is only too apparent. We boast of the great influence of our churches and of the power they exert upon the young in keeping them within the paths of rectitude, and the proof of their good works is constantly before our eyes. But neither the influence of the school nor that of the church can cope with exceptional cases.
     All public men must necessarily have opponents, but no other man of eminence ever had more friends or more well-wishers than William McKinley. In his many years of public service, through his just, honest, and kindly ways, he won the affection of multitudes of his fellow-citizens, and none could say a word against him personally. His own inoffensiveness, the bulwark of kindly feeling thrown around him by his friends, even the smile with which he greeted the assassin while offering to take his hand, all failed to save him. Nor was he lacking in such protection as force could throw around him. Guarded on every hand by skilled private detectives, educated to thwart criminals, and to be alert and prepared for just such emergencies, one might have hoped for better results. Alas! here, too, the impotence of human effort became manifest; and in the face of it all what more can we say than was so pathetically said by the President himself, “It is God’s way.”
     During the time that he was under treatment for his wounds the whole civilized world was sending forth heartfelt wishes as well as sincere prayers for his recovery. The churches throughout the land were appealing in his behalf. Catholic, Protestant, and Hebrew were alike solicitous for his return to health. Prayers, too, proved unavailing, for neither they nor tears were able to alter the supreme decree or raise the standard of human power. The medical reports scattered over the country by the press seemed, for a number of days, to betoken a realization of the nation’s wishes—a speedy recovery of the distinguished sufferer. Journals, both lay and medical, were rejoicing in the good prospects that seemed to be foreshadowed; but it all ended in the gloom of despair. In the moment of ap- [373][374] parent triumph high encomiums were published regarding present-day surgery and medicine. But these eulogistic comments only served at last to emphasize the impotence of man before the great unexplored and unknown regions of nature that lie around us. The majority of men appear to look upon the known as everything, and never seem to dream that there is a greater territory of the unknown. Much as we now know, we must know vastly more before we are able to cope successfully with the exigencies of new conditions. The President’s case, unfortunately, introduced a condition that transcended the highest present-day human skill. The report of the autopsy says:

     “The bullet which struck over the breast-bone did not pass through the skin and did little harm. The other bullet passed through both walls of the stomach near its lower border. Both holes were found to be perfectly closed by the stitches, but the tissue around each hole had become gangrenous. After passing through the stomach the bullet passed into the back walls of the abdomen, hitting and tearing the upper end of the kidney. This portion of the bullet track was also gangrenous, the gangrene involving the pancreas. The bullet has not yet been found. There was no sign of peritonitis or disease of other organs. The heart walls were very thin. There was no evidence of any attempt at repair on the part of nature, and death resulted from the gangrene, which affected the stomach around the bullet wounds, as well as the tissues around the further course of the bullet. Death was unavoidable by any surgical or medical treatment, and was the direct result of the bullet wound.”

     Had the bullet taken a less fatal course, had a condition of gangrene not ensued, and had recovery taken place, the attending physicians and surgeons would have won from the public unstinted and exaggerated praise. Since death was unavoidable, in our present state of knowledge, they received a large amount of undeserved censure. But while many unfriendly words have been penned against them, yet it is very gratifying to see that our best lay journals have looked upon the matter in its true light. Taking the conditions as they were, and giving due weight to every fact, honesty compels every qualified man to conclude that neither he nor any other human being could have changed the outcome a particle. Our surgeons venture farther now than ever before in the history of man, but they cannot go beyond the very depth of their knowledge. Our medical knowledge can do more for the suffering to-day than ever before, but we do not yet know how to immunize the body against the appearance and fatal advancement of gangrene within the internal organs. Such treatment is yet beyond the borderland of therapeutics. No one has so far sufficiently studied the laws governing the development of gangrene as to learn what, if any, remedy will stimulate healthy circulation in torn and bruised tissues, and what, if any, antiseptic will check the development of gangrene in any tissue. To acquire such knowledge necessitates a vast amount of experimenting with bruised and mangled tissues, and in the use of drugs new and old that affect the circulation and destroy disease germs. But this is research along lines to which many well-meaning but misguided people object.
     Modern methods of scientific research can be relied upon to give just as brilliant results in materia medica and therapeutics as they have given in electricity and mechanics. In so far as such methods have already been applied to materia medica they have borne out this conclusion. Let us then permit and encourage free research after methods of controlling those forces that change diseased conditions to health, and the problem of the diagnosing and replacing of internal gangrenous tissues will soon be solved. When President Garfield was assassinated we were far behind our present day knowledge as to how to manage such a case. Unfortunately President McKinley’s wound introduced new problems not as yet solved. Soon we expect to be able to cope with these and so extend the area of our conquered territory. Of course, the broader that territory becomes, the less likely are our surgeons and therapeutists to be baffled with unknown conditions. Great national calamities like the one that has overtaken us stir the human heart to its depths and cement civilized men into closer bonds of fellowship through sympathy. But it does even more than this, since it directs the scientific mind toward efforts of research that tend to minimize the difficulties of treating the sick. Every failure of human endeavor should lead to good through increased knowledge.



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