Judging from Candice Millard’s straightforward account of the assassination of James Garfield, there were two men responsible for his death. The more obvious villain was the shooter, Charles Guiteau, an unquestionably insane loner. The less obvious accomplice, judging from her words, was the man who seized control of Garfield’s care and appointed himself the president’s chief physician. The bullet that wounded the president would not have been fatal, but the medical attention he received afterward was. In fairness, a medical discovery already made in 1881 that could have helped Garfield was considered controversial and would not be generally embraced in America for a few more decades. Yet, Dr. Joseph Lister’s use of carbolic acid to sterilize surgical instruments and clean wounds had been in existence since the 1860s. The Englishman attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, attempting to convince American doctors of its effectiveness. Alexander Graham Bell, whose telephone was discovered at that same exhibition, heard the news that Bliss could not find the bullet inside the president. The incredible inventor came up with the “induction balance”—a metal detecting machine. But Bliss waited too long to call Bell, and when he did he never allowed the inventor to check his left as well as his right side for the bullet. Bliss was sure it was on the right; an autopsy found it on the left. In court, Guiteau made the argument that the president died from malpractice rather than his attempt. While almost certainly true, Guiteau was still hung. Yet, most historians name Bliss as a proud, ignorant accomplice. Portrayed as a glory seeker, Bliss relied on his prowess and rejected several people and principles that could have prevented Garfield’s death (Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, And The Murder of a President, Anchor: New York, 2011).
To be fair, it would have taken uncommon clarity and vision for Bliss to ignore the prevailing views of his colleagues and embrace Lister’s techniques and Bell’s invention, but he could have.
There will be people we encounter today, who appear to be in great health and no danger. Yet, the vast majority of them will face a fate infinitely more terrible than the one Garfield succumbed to. They will eventually die, unprepared for the eternity that will follow (Mat. 7:13-14). The most tragic part of this will be, if you and I are in their lives, that it will not have had to be this way. At least, we have the solution from the “Great Physician” and we should know how to administer it. God needs us to make use of the resources He’s made available to us—prayer, Bible knowledge, influence, personality, courage, love, and a sense of urgency (cf. Col. 4:2-6; 1 Pet. 3:15; Eph. 4:15; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; John 4:35; etc.). We can look within our congregations and see those who were reached in this way. We see others who are not far from the cure, but who need us to help them. How inexcusable is it to have the remedy but refuse to share it? May God help us use the resources we have available to us!