Magazine article USA TODAY

Abraham Lincoln: The Final Casualty of the War

Magazine article USA TODAY

Abraham Lincoln: The Final Casualty of the War

Article excerpt

"This was once the Man, Gentle, plain, just and resolute--under whose cautious hand, Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age, Was saved the Union of These States," wrote poet Walt Whitman.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Pres. Abraham Lincoln's birth, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is honoring the nation's 16th president with an exhibition of items associated with his last hours and the physicians who cared for him.

In April 1862--during the Civil War--Lincoln appointed William A. Hammond as Surgeon General of the U.S. Army. Hammond then founded the Army Medical Museum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine) to document the effects of war wounds and disease on the human body. Today, NMHM is the nation's repository of historical and medically-significant specimens and artifacts documenting the history of American medicine, with a special emphasis on military medicine.

The final hours. On the evening of April 14, 1865, between 10-10:30 p.m., Pres. Lincoln was attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The actor John Wilkes Booth entered the state box and fired a single bullet from a Philadelphia Deringer pistol into the back of Lincoln's head.

As Booth escaped from the theatre, Charles A. Leale, an Army surgeon, made his way through the audience to Lincoln's box and was the first to reach his side. He found the President in a comatose state with labored breathing and no pulse. Leale was joined by two other Army physicians, Charles S. Taft and Albert F. A. King. They failed to revive the President with brandy and artificial respiration. After Leale probed the wound with his finger and removed a blood clot, Lincoln's breathing became more regular.

About 15 minutes after the incident, the doctors carried Lincoln to Petersen's boarding house located across the street from the theatre.

Lincoln's personal physician, Robert King Stone, as well as several Army physicians, including Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes of the Army Medical Museum and C.H. Lieberman attended to Lincoln until his breathing stopped at 7:20 a.m. on April 15.

Prior to the discovery of X-rays, physicians had difficulty differentiating between bullet and bone within a wound, so a porcelain-tipped probe was used to explore the wound site. If the probe encountered a lead bullet, a mark would appear on its white tip. At about 2 a.m., Surgeon General Barnes introduced a silver probe into the wound, which met an obstruction at a depth of about three inches. He determined that the obstruction was a plug of bone lodged in the path of the ball. The probe passed by the obstruction but was too short to follow the entire track of the wound. He then introduced this long, Nelaton probe that passed into the track of the wound two inches beyond the plug of bone and struck what he believed was the bullet, passed beyond it, and encountered fragments of the orbital bones of the left eye socket. The bullet did not make a mark on the tip of the probe.

The autopsy. On April 15, 1865, at 12:10 p.m., the autopsy of Pres. Lincoln took place in the Guest Room at the northeast corner of the second floor of the White House (currently the President's Dining Room).

Surgeon General Barnes and Dr. …

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