Americas

America's First President, George Washington, died in 1799, just two years after leaving office, at age 67

President (1789–1797)

Retirement (1797–1799)

Death (1799)

Washington retired to Mount Vernon in March 1797 and devoted time to his plantations and other business interests, including his distillery.

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms on horseback in snow and sleet. He returned home late for dinner but refused to change out of his wet clothes, not wanting to keep his guests waiting.

He had a sore throat the following day but again went out in freezing, snowy weather to mark trees for cutting. That evening, he complained of chest congestion but was still cheerful.

On Saturday, he awoke to an inflamed throat and difficulty breathing, so he ordered estate overseer George Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood, a practice of the time.

His family summoned Doctors James Craik, Gustavus Richard Brown, and Elisha C. Dick. (Dr. William Thornton arrived some hours after Washington died.)

Dr. Brown thought that Washington had quinsy; Elisha thought that the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat". They continued the process of bloodletting to approximately five pints, but it was futile and his condition deteriorated.

Elisha Dick proposed a tracheotomy, but the other two doctors were not familiar with that procedure and therefore disapproved.

Washington instructed Brown and Dick to leave the room, while he assured Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go."

Washington's death came more swiftly than expected. At his deathbed, he instructed his private secretary Tobias Lear to wait three days before his burial, out of fear of being entombed alive. According to Lear, he died peacefully between 10 and 11 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799 with Martha seated at the foot of his bed, and his last words were "'Tis well", from his conversation with Lear about his burial. He was 67.

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day that he died. The published account of Drs. Craik and Brown stated that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis (tracheal inflammation), a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the upper windpipe, including quinsy.

Accusations have persisted since Washington's death concerning medical malpractice, with some believing that he had been bled to death. Various modern medical authors have speculated that he died from a case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments, most notably the massive blood loss which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.