St James Infirmary

The book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard has a most descriptive title. The book details the rise and assassination of the 20th President of the United States; the madness and downfall of the assassin, Charles J Guiteau interspersed with medical thoughts and practices of the day.

I appreciated the history lesson. In all my time in college, I never took an American History class, so this was a welcome opportunity to learn about the country I call home. (I was also rather amused to see that nothing in politics has changed — or is likely to change, for that matter.)

As I read the book, I thought the author devoted numerous pages to Guiteau and his descent into madness but I also realized that it was important to show just how crazy this man was (in retrospect, perhaps she didn’t have to spend as much time on Guiteau, because she made it abundently clear that he wasn’t running on all cylinders).

By the time President Garfield reached his untimely death, I was fully immersed in the culture and politics of the time as well as the medical practices of the time.

Yet, by the end of the book, I was confused.

I had purchased this book based on recommendations and reviews from medically-oriented publications as well as the reviews.

The medicine discussed in the book, while very well presented, I felt wasn’t all that in-depth compared to the other parts of the book, namely the madness of the assassin and the presidential victim.

I admit that I’m a medical history snob, having read detailed accounts of the medicine of the era. I understood the difficulty that Dr Joseph Lister had in trying to convince his medical colleagues that antiseptic surgery and procedures were the way to go. I wasn’t at all familiar with Alexander Graham Bell’s attempt to help locate the bullet with his induction balance machine.

Overall, I was happy with the book. I thought the author took a very positive view of President Garfield, so much so, that when he finally died, I had fully expected a Chorus of Angels leading the now dead President off to Heaven. With that cynical observation aside, I definitely recommend the book.

Anyone interested in American, Presidential or Medical history will find something to like.

Kudos to the publisher for a fine Kindle edition. I’ve had quibbles in the past (most notably, “Treating the Brain: What the Best Doctors Know”) and I’m glad to see that book publishers are taking their e-book publishing seriously. I read this book on both the iPhone 4S and iPad 2012.

I give this book a solid four stars. I would have given five stars if I felt I would re-read the book again in the future.

(Originally published on Live Journal: Serenade in Blue blog on 18 June 2012)

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