Did President Garfield Die Because of Metal Bed Springs?
Thomas Edison famously took advantage of a naive reporter, telling the young man that he was working on an invention that would allow a person to telephone dead people--a story that was reported as true, and one which Edison (both thoroughly disgusted and joyful) helped to perpetuate to the day he died by simply not discussing the issue. (This story appears on this blog here.)
Much earlier, only five years after Alexander Graham Bell first patented and published his invention of the telephone, the device was used by Bell to do some very early electrical medical imaging. The new President of the United States, James Garfield, had been shot by Charles Guiteau in Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station (on 2 July, 1881, after a lengthy period of semi-abstract stalking and planning) Station in Washington, D.C., receiving fatal wounds in July and which would cause his death later in September. The problem was that at this point in the history of surgery it was difficult to locate bullets in the body, becoming more so if the bullet took a non-straight course through the wounded. Normally, in 1881, a doctor could for example use a device called a Nelaton probe, a thin porcelain device (as opposed to most other probes, which were metallic) to help locate the embedded bullet. But given the nature of Garfield's wounds, this was just not applicable, and the bullet escaped recognition from this and other probes.
Bell enters the scene with an electromagnetic invention, the induction balance, which he created to detect interference on a telephone line. In the process of experimentation Bell recognized that the balance could be disturbed if the metal and battery-fueled probe came into contact with a piece of metal.--basically, the device was a medical metal detector. Bell resolved to use the device on Garfield, passing the probe along the President's body while another person listened to a telephone ear piece for the telltale "click" of a proximate metallic object.
Bell was not successful with this, or at least not so at this time, and the President died, succumbing to an infection, finally. But Bell was able to perfect this instrument, something that stayed in use as the principal means of detecting metal objects in the body, and was about as fine an instrument as could be expected, though it was completely eclipsed by the revolutionary machines brought about by Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-Rays in 1895. And as it just so happens, the first surgical case in which the x-rays were used was for a case involving a shotgun wound.
Finally, one of the reasons why Bell's instrument didn't quite work on President Garfield is that Garfield's bed had a metal box spring, which very well might have played havoc with Bell's instrument. Perhaps if there was no metal in examining area, Bell's device might've worked.
An earlier and more crude device had been invented by Wilhelm Heinrich Dove (1803-1879, a German physicist and early meteorologist) though I am not sure that it comes into play with Bell's apparatus at all.
From Harper's Weekly, 13 August 1881:
"The experiments made by Professor Alexander Graham Bell with the view of determining by the aid of the electric current the location of the bullet in the President's person were of the most interesting nature. The possibility that a time might come when it would be necessary to make incisions at once for the removal of the bullet, without consuming precious time for further consultation, gave to the experiments an importance which added greatly to their interests."
"An apparatus known as the induction balance had been used by Professor Bell in analyzing metals. This instrument, modified so as to impart to it the highest degree of sensitiveness, was used in the search for the leaden ball. Its nature is such that it is not easily understood except by electricians. It consists of a battery, two coils of insulated wire, a circuit-breaker, and a telephone. The ends of the primary coil are connected with a battery, and those of the secondary coil are fastened to the posts of the telephone. This latter connection renders audible any faint sound produced by the circuit-breaker, or any change in the pitch of that sound. The coils may be so placed in their relationship to each other that no sound is made by the circuit-breaker. They are then said to be balanced, and the wires are extremely sensitive to the disturbing presence of any other piece of metal. A bullet like that with which the President was shot, before it was flattened, will, when placed within two and one-half inches of the most sensitive point on the pair of coils, cause a faint protest against the disturbance to arise in the telephone. A flattened bullet of the same bulk, when presented with its flat surface toward the coils, will make its presence felt at a distance of nearly five inches. When its sharp edge is turned toward the plane of the coils, no sound is produced beyond the distance of one inch."
"With these facts in view, the experiments to locate the position of the bullet in the President's body were begun. The patient was bolstered up in bed, and he watched the proceedings with mute interest. His physicians stood around. Professor Bell stood with his back toward the President, holding the telephone to his ear, while Mr. Tainton, Professor Bell's assistant, moved the coils over that portion of the abdomen where the leaden ball was thought to be imbedded. When the sensitive centre of the instrument was immediately over the black and blue spot that appeared shortly after the President was wounded, Professor Bell said, "Stop! there it is."
"The experiment was repeated several times -- once with Mrs. Garfield listening at the telephone; and she told the President when the coils had been brought to the spot where the presence of the bullet had previously caused the delicate instrument to give forth a singing sound. From these tests it was inferred that in any event the bullet was less than five inches from the surface, and that if it was only slightly flattened, or if its edge was turned obliquely toward the surface, it might be much nearer to the skin. The conclusion reached was that if it should become necessary to remove the bullet at any time, this might be speedily accomplished by two quick cuts with the surgeon's lancet."