How much is a drop of presidential blood worth?
An online auction site is hoping to find out by selling a vial that it claims was used to draw President Ronald Reagan’s blood as he recovered from the gunshot wound that nearly killed him in 1981. To top it off, the auction site says, “dried blood residue” is clearly visible inside the vial.
The sale drew immediate scorn from the doctors who treated Reagan after the assassination attempt and the threat of a lawsuit from the director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
“Any individual, including a President of the United States, should feel confident that once they enter into the care of a medical system, their privacy and rights are held inviolable,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the foundation, adding that the auction was a “craven act.”
So far, the auction, which ends at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, has garnered bids that have topped $14,400. The site, PFC Auctions, is based on the island of Guernsey, an autonomous British protectorate, in the English Channel. PFC advertises itself as “a boutique online auction business specialising in world class Art, Antiques and Collectibles,” and it has for sale other presidential items, including what it says is a piece of George Washington’s hair and a pair of gloves that purportedly belonged to Jackie Kennedy.
The site says that the Reagan vial is being sold on behalf of the son of a woman, now deceased, who worked at a laboratory in Columbia that tested Reagan’s blood, which had been drawn while he was treated at George Washington University Hospital.
The lab worker was permitted to take the vial and its accompanying paperwork by a supervisor at Bio-Science Laboratories. She kept it until her death in 2010, her son said in a statement posted on the auction site.
The unidentified man said he contacted the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and was told that the National Archives would accept the vial but not pay for it.
“I had served under Pres. Reagan when he was my Commander in Chief when I was in the ARMY from ’87-’91 and . . . I was a real fan of Reaganomics and felt that Pres. Reagan himself would rather see me sell it rather than donating it,” the man wrote on the PFC Web site.
A spokesman for GW hospital declined to comment Tuesday.
Reagan was shot by John W. Hinckley Jr. as he left the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, just 70 days into his first term as president. Badly wounded, the president lost more than half of his blood that day. If not for quick-acting Secret Service agents and hospital personnel, Reagan would have died.
A surgeon eventually plucked out the bullet, which had come to rest just an inch from the president’s heart. Three other men — White House press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty — also were wounded in Hinckley’s blaze of bullets. All survived.
Doctors who treated Reagan said they are not surprised that such an item would be auctioned off because doctors, nurses and technicians kept a number of mementos of Reagan’s treatment and his 13-day stay at GW. One surgeon hung onto the president’s stitches, and nurses slipped away with copies of lab and medical reports. FBI agents spent weeks fruitlessly combing the hospital for Reagan’s prized “Golden Bear” cufflinks, which had vanished when his clothes were cut from him in the emergency room. The cufflinks have never surfaced; some medical personnel believe they left the hospital in someone’s pocket.
When David Gens, then a chief GW resident, removed one of Reagan’s catheters, he was told by a Secret Service agent that the medical device had to be taken to the White House and destroyed. “Otherwise, the agent said somebody would try to auction it for money,” said Gens, now a surgeon at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Joseph Giordano, who was head of the GW trauma team in 1981 and cared for Reagan, called the auction “outrageous.”
“You don’t go selling people’s specimens or bodily fluids,” said Giordano, who retired in 2010 as the hospital’s chairman of surgery. “You have no permission to do that. It’s unethical.”
Benjamin Aaron, a surgeon who operated on Reagan and extracted the bullet from his chest, said, “It smacks of some kind of invasion of privacy. It’s bizarre. It’s not a laughing matter. Why would anyone do anything like that? Maybe they could take his DNA and reproduce him like they did in ‘Jurrasic Park’?”
Short of a DNA test of the “blood residue” in the vial, it may be impossible to know whether the alleged artifact is legitimate. But it is labeled with the same patient identification number as other medical records linked to the assassination attempt.
However, at least one of those medical records turned out to be a forgery — an anesthesia report, which contained accurate information except for the incorrect spelling of Aaron’s name. Another difference between the two: The fake had much better handwriting. It seems that a nurse or doctor re-created the more pristine record so he or she could take it home as a souvenir.
Researcher Lucy Shackleford contributed to this report.