Doctor Willard Bliss

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Doctor Willard Bliss
Doctor Willard Bliss.jpg
Born(1825-08-18)August 18, 1825
Brutus, New York, United States
DiedFebruary 21, 1889(1889-02-21) (aged 63)
EducationCleveland Medical College
Known forAttending physician to President Garfield
Medical career
Sub-specialtiesBallistic trauma

Doctor Willard Bliss (August 18, 1825 – February 21, 1889; his given name was Doctor[1][2][3][4]) was an American physician and pseudo-expert in ballistic trauma, who treated President James A. Garfield after his wounding from a gunshot in July 1881 until his death two and a half months later.[5]

Early life and career[edit]

D.W. Bliss was born in Brutus, New York, to Obediah Bliss (1792–1863) and Marilla Pool (1795–1857).[6] Bliss's first and middle names (Doctor and Willard) were inspired by Samuel Willard, a surgeon from New England.[7][8][9] During his youth, the Bliss family lived in Savoy, Massachusetts.[6] Bliss had one brother, Zenas (July 4, 1832 – April 23, 1877).[6]

Bliss treated Zachary Taylor for malaria at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, in 1844.[10][11]

Bliss studied at Cleveland Medical College, submitting his thesis on Pseudarthrosis or False-Joint in 1849.[12]

During the American Civil War, Bliss was a surgeon with the Third Michigan Infantry.[11][13] Bliss later became superintendent at Washington D.C.'s Armory Square Hospital; he continued to practice in the city after the war had ended.[4]

Bliss was expelled from the District of Columbia Medical Society for his support of homeopathy and his opposition to the society's exclusion of black members.[14] After having his career threatened for embracing the novel field of homeopathy, Bliss was hesitant to accept another new movement in medicine, the antiseptic methods proposed by Joseph Lister.[14]

Bliss was mentioned in correspondence by Walt Whitman, who claimed that Bliss answered the House of Representatives' proposal for his pension in 1887 by saying, "I am of opinion that no one person who assisted in the hospitals during the war accomplished so much good to the soldiers and for the Government as Mr. Whitman".[4]

Bliss and his brother Zenas E. Bliss in 1861

Treatment of James Garfield[edit]

On July 2, 1881, Bliss was summoned by Robert Todd Lincoln after James A. Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Bliss examined Garfield's bullet wounds with his fingers and metal probes, concluding the bullet was in the President's liver.[5]

Bliss became Garfield's self-appointed doctor after their return to the White House.[15] As trained nurses were uncommon at this time, Bliss used Cabinet members' wives as help, even though they had no knowledge of nurses' duties.[15] Bliss also invited Alexander Graham Bell to test his metal detector on the President, hoping that it would locate the bullet.[16][page needed] The device's signal was thought to be distorted by the metal bed springs.[17][18] Later the detector was proved to work perfectly and would have found the bullet had Bliss allowed Bell to use the device on Garfield's left side as well his right side.[16][page needed]

After Garfield's death, Bliss submitted a claim for $25,000 (equivalent to $670,000 in 2020) for his services to the President.[19] He was offered $6,500 (equivalent to $170,000 in 2020) instead, an offer that he refused.[16][page needed]

Some believed even at the time that Bliss was guilty of malpractice.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Bliss married Sophia Prentiss (1825–1888[6][20]) in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on May 23, 1849.[21] They had four children: Elliss Baker (born April 25, 1850), a dentist; Clara Bliss Hinds, a medical practitioner; Willie Prentiss (born February 1854, died August 17, 1856 "by an accident") and Eugenie Prentiss (born August 10, 1855).[6] The family lived in a house in Washington D.C. built by John Quincy Adams.[6]

Sophia died in January 1888 in Washington D.C.; Bliss died in the same city on February 21, 1889.[6] His death was attributed to heart failure or apoplexy.[6]


  • Bliss, Doctor Willard (1849). A thesis on pseudarthrosis or false-joint. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Medical College.
  • Bliss, Willard. Feeding Per Rectum: As Illustrated in the Case of the Late President Garfield, and Others.
  • Bliss, Doctor Willard (1882). Excerpts from opinions of distinguished medical men in this and other countries justifying the treatment of the late President Garfield. Washington, D.C.: Gibson Brothers.
  • Bliss, Doctor Willard (1890). The Morgan horse: an essay on Justin Morgan and his family.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Bliss was named for an esteemed local physician, and so given the forename "Doctor", see NYT Staff (1881). "How Dr. Bliss Got His Name; From the Elmira Advertiser, July 7" (print). The New York Times (July 9). Retrieved February 2, 2016.
  2. ^ Rutkow, Ira (2010). Seeking the cure: a history of medicine in America. Chicago, IL: Simon and Schuster. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4165-3828-8.
  3. ^ Shrady, George Frederick; Stedman, Thomas Lathrop, eds. (1889). "Obituary — D. Willard Bliss". Medical Record. 35: 244.
  4. ^ a b c Whitman, Walt; Miller, Edwin Haviland (2007). The Correspondence: Volume I: 1842–1867. New York, NY: New York University Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-8147-9421-0.
  5. ^ a b Oliver, Willard M; Marion, Nancy E (2010). Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-313-36474-7.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Baxter, Albert (1891). History of the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Munsell & Company.
  7. ^ "How Dr. Bliss Got His Name" (PDF). New York Times. 1881. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
  8. ^ Appleton (1890). Annual cyclopedia and register of important events. 29. New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company. p. 619.
  9. ^ Smith Lamb, Daniel (1909). History of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia: 1817-1909. Medical Society of the District of Columbia. p. 277.
  10. ^ Bumgarner, John R (1994). The Health of the Presidents. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. p. 73.
  11. ^ a b DoctorZebra. "Presidential Physician: Doctor Willard Bliss". DoctorZebra. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
  12. ^ Bliss, Doctor Willard (1849). A thesis on pseudarthrosis or false-joint. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Medical College.
  13. ^ Combined Military Service Record
  14. ^ a b c "Who's Who: Dr. Willard Bliss", American Experience: Murder of a President, WGBH, PBS, retrieved October 2, 2020.
  15. ^ a b Oliver, Willard M; Marion, Nancy E (2010). Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-313-36474-7.
  16. ^ a b c Millard, Candice (2011). Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. New York, NY, USA: Random House-Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385535007. Retrieved February 2, 2016.[page needed]
  17. ^ Peskin (1978), p.598.
  18. ^ e.g. Bill Bryson: Made in America: an Informal History of the English Language in the United States, Black Swan, 1998, p.102.
  19. ^ Minnesota State Medical Association (1943). "Minnesota Medicine". Minnesota Medicine. 26: 552.
  20. ^ Oak Hill Cemetery (2009). "LOT 212 East" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Oak Hill Cemetery. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
  21. ^ "Ohio Marriages". PrenticeNet. 1997. Retrieved September 25, 2011.

Further reading[edit]