Letter to the Editor

The 20th president’s legacy

Thank you for the timely remembrance of President James A. Garfield [“A president worth remembering,” editorial, Feb. 18].

His assassination, the editorial concluded, was a tragic setback for Reconstruction. It also led to historic changes in American medicine.

Candice Millard’s recent book, “Destiny of the Republic,” recounts that the gunshot wound inflicted by a “deranged office seeker” was likely survivable. Garfield died from infection abetted by physicians who grossly abjured the antiseptic practices pioneered in Europe.

Aware of this, the nation recommitted itself to advancing medical science. In 1887, Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, who studied under Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, established the Marine Hospital Service’s Laboratory of Hygiene, which later became the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s preeminent medical research agency.

Coincidentally, the NIH is now facing the largest budget cut in its history. Even before sequestration, the NIH’s budget is less, adjusting for inflation, than it was a decade ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other Public Health Service agencies face similar cuts. I doubt that most Americans want this country to do less research on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, infectious disease, schizophrenia, etc. or believe that forgone spending for research would perceptibly reduce the national debt. It is this situation that may be called deranged.

Stephen Heinig, Gaithersburg

The writer is director of science policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The Presidents’ Day editorial on President James A. Garfield rightly called attention to one of American history’s great might-have-beens. The killing of Abraham Lincoln and Garfield’s 1881 assassination robbed the nation of leaders who intended to conduct a rational, fair reconstruction after the Civil War. The result was a lost century.

After his inaugural address, Garfield’s next major public speech was to have been at the centennial celebration at Yorktown the following October, for the laying of the victory monument’s cornerstone. That celebration was the third in a series of six, stretching from Bunker Hill in 1875 to New York in 1889, commemorating great events in the nation’s founding and intending to heal the wounds of the Civil War. The lead organizer, credited by New Jersey Gov. Robert Green as the “father of centennials,” was my great-great-grandfather, Col. Jesse Peyton of Haddonfield. Garfield’s death meant that the Yorktown centennial became instead the first major address by President Chester A. Arthur.

In his first State of the Union message in December 1881, Arthur referred to the Yorktown event three times and said of Garfield, in the language of the day, “The memory of his exalted character, of his noble achievements and of his patriotic life will be treasured forever as a sacred possession of the whole people.” First-time voters in the past election, like my own children — and even more so those who could have voted but did not — would do well to take up Garfield’s charge in his inaugural address: “The voters of the Union, who make and unmake constitutions, and upon whose will hang the destinies of governments, can transmit their supreme authority to no successors save the coming generation of voters, who are the sole heirs of sovereign power.”

David Peyton, Falls Church

 
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