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Caring for a President

Remembering GW’s Efforts to Save Abraham Lincoln

By Thomas Kohout

This year marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most monumental events in Washington, D.C. history, and indeed U.S. history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The tragic event cemented the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), or National Medical College of Columbian University, as it was known at the time, in its unofficial role as the health care provider to the world’s leaders.

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The following is a timeline of events based on National Archive records and accounts from Elmer Louis Kayser’s 1973 history of the George Washington University’s academic medical programs, titled “A Medical Center: The Institutional Development of Medical Education in George Washington University.”

On April 14, 1865, just five days removed from the unconditional surrender of Confederate forces and six weeks after his second inauguration, President Abraham Lincoln and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln join others in a private box at Ford’s Theatre to watch a performance of the comedy “Our American Cousin.” Also in attendance is Maryland native and Confederate-sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

At 10:13 p.m., Booth enters the private box and pulls the trigger on a .44 caliber, single-shot derringer pistol aimed at the back of the president’s head. During his escape, Booth produces a knife and stabs U.S. Army officer Henry Rathbone, who was attending the play with the Lincolns and his fiancée, Clara Harris, the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris.

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First on the scene to aid the president is 23-year-old Charles Leale, M.D., who has only weeks before completed his medical training. Through physical examination, Leale determines a bullet has penetrated Lincoln’s skull just behind his left ear. The president is left paralyzed and barely breathing.

Albert Freeman Africanus King, M.D. 1861, a graduate of the National Medical College of Columbian College, is seated below the president’s box in the orchestra section. King, just 24 years old, will go on to become professor and chair of obstetrics and serve as dean of the National Medical College from 1879 to 1894. He climbs to the box above, joining Leale in an effort to revive the president. After a medical examination, the young physicians help carry the president across 10th Street to the home of William Peterson.

Lincoln’s personal physician, Robert King Stone, M.D., a faculty member at National Medical College and former dean of the medical faculty (1853), is summoned to Lincoln’s deathbed. Upon arrival, Stone assumes the role of chief attending physician for the mortally wounded president.

John Frederick May, M.D., professor of surgery and anatomy and another former dean of National Medical College, is called to Lincoln’s bedside for consultation. Twelve days later, May will be called upon to help identify the body of John Wilkes Booth.

Nine hours after the shooting, at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, Lincoln dies. At his bedside, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton remarks, “Now he belongs to the ages.”