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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard’s account of President James Garfield’s assassination brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.

By Erik Spanberg / September 13, 2011

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard Doubleday 352 pp.

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First, the killer walks away from a deadly steamship accident on Long Island Sound.

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Then, in a flashback from four years earlier, the other major protagonists, from the soon-to-be 20th president to men who revolutionized medicine and communications, share the stage at the nation’s Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. The backdrop: portions of the yet-to-be-assembled Statue of Liberty on display for thousands of curious onlookers.

So begins Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard’s account of President James Garfield’s assassination and the medical bungling that led to his death at the age of 49. It is a fascinating look into a period of neglected American history.

Garfield served less than a year as commander in chief and is remembered as a footnote president, if at all. In that regard, it seems a safe bet the background of his months-long death spiral after the shooting is even more obscure.

But, as Millard makes clear, the fate of Garfield and the suffering of his wife and children wracked the country throughout the summer of 1881.

As an Ohio Congressman, Garfield was a respected, learned man with a propensity for loquaciousness. When he first appears in Millard’s account, Garfield is with his wife and six children, strolling through the exhibition in anticipation of exploring the scientific marvels on display.

Said scientific wonders included the unsung work of a Scotsman named Alexander Graham Bell, who – thanks to an improbable encounter with the emperor of Brazil – becomes an overnight wunderkind for his invention of the telephone.

Nearby, British surgeon Joseph Lister stands before America’s elite doctors and surgeons lecturing on antisepsis, his groundbreaking theory of killing germs to prevent post-operative infection and death in patients. Though Lister’s methods had already dramatically reduced death rates in operating rooms across Europe, in the United States he faced a skeptical audience wary of sterilizing instruments or even washing lab coats before surgery.

With this foundation in place, Millard builds a popular history that is both substantive and satisfying. Filled with memorable characters, hairpin twists of fate and consequences that bring a young nation to the breaking point, “Destiny of the Republic” brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.

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