What Did George Washington Die Of Diagnosing George Washingtons Fatal Illness

George Washington, a foundational figure in American history, met his end in December 1799 under circumstances that have intrigued historians and medical professionals alike. As the first President of the United States and a celebrated war hero, his death left a profound impact on the nation. This article delves into the medical details of his final days, exploring the symptoms he experienced, the treatments he underwent, and the theories surrounding his cause of death. By examining the intersection of 18th-century medical practices with modern medical insights, we aim to shed light on what really led to the demise of this eminent leader.

George Washington’s Early Life With A Focus On His Health

George Washington’s early life, marked by both vigor and vulnerability, offers a complex picture of his health before he became a central figure in American history. Born in 1732 in Virginia, Washington was initially robust and physically active, which served him well in his early roles as a surveyor and later as a military officer. However, his health was not without challenges:

Like many of his contemporaries, Washington survived several typical childhood diseases, including a bout with smallpox at age 19 during a trip to Barbados, which left him with lifelong facial scars but also immunity that was beneficial during later smallpox outbreaks in America.

Throughout his youth and into his adult life, Washington suffered recurrent attacks of malaria, contracted initially in the damp riverside regions where he worked and lived. There is also speculation that he might have battled tuberculosis at a young age, evidenced by persistent respiratory complaints.

Washington’s dental health was notoriously poor; he began losing teeth in his twenties, leading to a lifetime of dental problems and the eventual use of multiple sets of dentures made from various materials, including ivory, gold, and lead, though never wood as commonly mythologized.

Despite these health issues, Washington’s physical presence was commanding. Standing over six feet tall, his stature and endurance were notable, qualities that contributed significantly to his persona and effectiveness as a military leader and later as president.

The Final Days: December 1799

In December 1799, George Washington’s robust frame was subjected to a sudden and severe illness that would lead to his untimely demise. The sequence of events began on December 12th when Washington was caught in a harsh winter storm while inspecting his estate on horseback. The following detailed account captures the critical hours of his final days:

Exposure to Harsh Weather: On December 12, after spending several hours riding around his Mount Vernon estate, Washington returned home soaked and chilled but neglected to change out of his wet clothes until after dinner, exposing himself to intense cold and damp conditions.

Onset of Illness: The next day, December 13, Washington developed a severe sore throat accompanied by hoarseness and congestion. By nightfall, his condition worsened significantly, showing symptoms of acute laryngitis or possibly developing into what modern doctors would recognize as acute epiglottitis.

Rapid Progression: By the early hours of December 14, Washington’s breathing became markedly labored, and he grew increasingly weak. Despite the severe discomfort, he was characteristically stoic, instructing his overseers on estate matters between fits of coughing and breathlessness.

Medical Interventions: Throughout the night, several physicians were summoned, including Dr. James Craik, Washington’s personal physician, and two consulting doctors, Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Their treatments followed the common medical practices of the time, which included multiple rounds of bloodletting—a total of about five pints, induced vomiting, and various poultices and enemas.

Washington’s Final Hours: Despite these efforts, Washington’s condition continued to decline. Recognizing the gravity of his situation, he prepared for his death, giving last instructions about his will and expressing wishes for an inexpensive and straightforward funeral. In the late evening of December 14, surrounded by loved ones and attended by his doctors, George Washington died. His last words reportedly were, “Tis well.”

Theories On The Cause Of Death

The cause of George Washington’s death has been a subject of debate among historians and medical experts. While the exact cause remains speculative due to the limited medical understanding of the time, several theories have been proposed based on the symptoms and treatments described in historical records:

Acute Bacterial Epiglottitis: 

The most widely accepted theory suggests that Washington died from acute bacterial epiglottitis. This condition involves a severe, life-threatening inflammation of the epiglottis, which can rapidly obstruct the airway. Washington’s symptoms, including severe throat pain, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and eventual suffocation, align closely with this diagnosis. The aggressive treatments, such as bloodletting, could have weakened his system further, making it impossible for him to fight off the infection.


Another theory posits that Washington might have suffered from quinsy, also known as a peritonsillar abscess. This condition is an accumulation of pus behind the tonsils that can block the throat. However, the symptoms of quinsy slightly differ from those Washington exhibited, particularly in the rapid progression to respiratory distress.


Some have speculated that Washington could have developed pneumonia, given his initial exposure to harsh weather conditions and the subsequent development of respiratory symptoms. Pneumonia was a common and often fatal disease in the 18th century, and its symptoms could explain some aspects of Washington’s illness, though not the acute onset of throat pain and rapid deterioration.

Laryngeal Diphtheria: 

A less commonly discussed theory is laryngeal diphtheria, a bacterial infection that could have caused a thick, gray membrane to form in Washington’s throat, leading to breathing difficulties. However, this theory is less supported due to the lack of other typical diphtheria symptoms, such as nasal discharge or a barking cough.

Medical Analysis Of Symptoms And Treatment

George Washington’s final illness in December 1799 presents a fascinating case study from both historical and medical perspectives. Here’s an analysis of his symptoms and the treatments administered:


  • Initial Symptoms: Washington began experiencing severe throat pain and hoarseness on December 13 after exposure to cold, wet weather. These symptoms rapidly escalated to difficulty breathing and inability to swallow.
  • Progression: The discomfort in his throat intensified, leading to acute respiratory distress. Washington’s condition worsened rapidly, indicating a possible obstruction in the airway.

Treatments Administered:

  • Bloodletting: One of the primary treatments Washington received was bloodletting, a common medical practice at the time. His physicians removed a significant quantity of blood, hoping to reduce inflammation and infection. Modern analysis suggests that this likely weakened him further rather than helping.
  • Poultices and Enemas: Poultices were applied to his throat to reduce swelling and soothe pain. Enemas were used to treat the overall illness by purging the body, another standard practice of that era.
  • Calomel and Tartar Emetic: Washington was given doses of calomel (mercurous chloride) to purge the body further and tartar emetic (antimony potassium tartrate) to induce vomiting. These treatments were believed to remove toxins and fight infection.

Medical Analysis:

  • Diagnosis: Based on the symptoms, the most likely diagnosis would be acute bacterial epiglottitis, which involves inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, leading to obstruction of the airway. This condition can cause severe pain, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and ultimately, respiratory failure.
  • Effectiveness of Treatments: The treatments administered, particularly the extensive bloodletting and the use of harsh chemicals like calomel and tartar emetic, were not only ineffective but potentially detrimental. Modern medical practice would instead manage such a condition with antibiotics to treat the infection and intubation or tracheotomy to secure the airway if necessary.

Final Words

George Washington’s death, cloaked in mystery and historical significance, reflects the limitations and challenges of 18th-century medicine. His final days, marked by a rapid decline under aggressive and now outdated treatments, continue to fascinate and educate. Through revisiting Washington’s demise, we gain insights into his life and legacy and the evolution of medical practices that have since sought to offer more humane and effective treatments. His parting, characterized by his stoic acceptance and carefully considered final words, “Tis well,” epitomizes the dignity with which he faced life and death, leaving a lasting impact on the nation he helped forge.


What treatments were given to George Washington during his final illness?

Washington was treated with bloodletting, inducing vomiting, and various poultices and enemas, which were standard medical practices at the time but likely worsened his condition.

Did the medical treatments contribute to Washington’s death?

Many historians and medical experts believe that the treatments, especially the extensive bloodletting, may have weakened Washington’s condition and contributed to his death.

Could George Washington’s death have been prevented with modern medicine?

With today’s medical knowledge and treatments, conditions like acute bacterial epiglottitis can typically be managed effectively, suggesting that Washington’s death might have been preventable with modern medical care.