Gail Jarrow is the author of Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield, part of her Medical Fiascoes series for older kids. Her many other books include Blood and Germs. She lives in Ithaca, New York.
Q: What inspired you to write this book about the assassination of President James Garfield, the latest in your Medical Fiascoes series?
A: Several years ago, I read an article in an old American Heritage magazine about the 1881 shooting of President Garfield in a Washington train station.
I realized that this true story would be the perfect follow-up to my first Medical Fiascoes book, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease.
Garfield’s doctors had been Civil War army surgeons, and they were considered gunshot experts. But they hadn’t kept up with changes in medical ideas, namely germ theory and antiseptic practices.
Garfield’s well-publicized suffering and eventual death under their care pushed American medicine from the Civil War era into the 20th century.
Q: In the book, you describe what Garfield's medical care would look like had he been alive today instead of in the 19th century. What do you think are the most important medical advances in the past 140 years affecting gunshot victims?
A: At the top of the list is the medical community’s acceptance of the germ theory of disease and infection. Before the last two decades of the 19th century, most American surgeons didn’t wash their hands or sterilize their instruments. Antiseptic care and the use antibiotics in the 20th century prevented countless wound infections.
Another important development was the invention of ways to see inside the body (X-rays, CT scans, MRIs). If Garfield’s doctors had known where his bullet was and the damage it had caused, they wouldn’t have kept probing for it with dirty fingers and instruments.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: As a first step, I read enough to get a broad view of James Garfield’s life, his assassination, and his wound treatment. Next I plunged into more specific academic books and journal articles. The primary sources I used included diaries and letters; doctors’ reports; and the transcript of the assassin’s trial.
Before the pandemic shutdown, I was able to visit Garfield's Ohio home, the historic site now managed by the National Park Service. That gave me a feel for him that I couldn’t get from books.
One of many surprises was learning that the White House released intimate details about Garfield’s condition to the press. This continued two or three times a day throughout the summer of 1881. The public knew all about the president's diet, body temperature fluctuations, and even bowel habits.
I read hundreds of telegrams sent to the bedridden Garfield from all parts of the U.S. People felt as much concern for him as they did a family member.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says it "Invites appreciation of and affection for a president nearly everyone has forgotten." What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I liked that assessment. Garfield is worth remembering and admiring, and not only because his death affected medicine, government, and politics.
He pulled himself out of poverty by working hard and by seeking the best education he could. His experiences convinced him that education was the path to a successful personal life and to a strong democratic nation. In his inaugural speech, he described the country's high illiteracy rate as a serious problem.
Garfield was a man of great potential, and I wonder what “might have been” had he served as president for more than a few months.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The third book in my Medical Fiascoes series will be American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South, due out in October 2022.
This medical mystery takes place at the beginning of the 20th century about 25 years after James Garfield’s death. The book explores how a parasite (hookworm) slowly drained the energy and life from millions of Southerners. The response to this fiasco was another critical step in the evolution of American medical care.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I write about medical fiascoes and deadly diseases because I’m intrigued by stories from the history of medicine. My books have a common theme: Even the most tragic situations lead to progress and knowledge. The COVID pandemic makes this hopeful message especially relevant.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gail Jarrow.