December 12th, 1799, was a freezing cold day in Virginia, but the weather conditions did not stop President George Washington riding out on horseback for the daily inspection of his Mount Vernon plantation. On return, he developed a fever and respiratory distress.
As there were no means to diagnose or treat a bacterial infection, doctors believed that bloodletting would improve a patient’s condition. In addition to the application of crude purgatives and emetics, over half of Washington’s blood was drained in just a few hours. Today, it is widely held that the President died from aggressive bloodletting which resulted in severely low blood pressure and shock.
Recurrent yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia and George Washington’s medical treatment contributed to a fierce politico-medical fall out in which the issue of bloodletting took center stage.