Ben’s catheter. March 29, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Colonial medicine, Franklin inventions, Gouverneur Morris
Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were stunned to see that not one but two people had come onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, searching for “Ben’s catheter.” In fact, poor OFB was practically apoplectic. What on earth were they thinking?! Then we had a collective rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and recalled that our blog mentor and hero, Benjamin Franklin, had invented the catheter. We thought there was a certain irony here, so we checked in with our friend, fellow blog contributor, and historian-in-chief Richard Saunders.
Sure enough. The irony is that old Ben’s invention could have saved his friend and fellow patriot Gouverneur Morris’s life. So many of the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, just to name four—were extraordinary people. But Dr. Franklin and Gouverneur Morris may have topped the list in the extraordinary category.
A number of the Founders also suffered premature and unnecessary deaths, from bad medicine or bad judgment. (Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr and George Washington’s death from complications from a cold and treatment for same spring to mind.) But no death was as unnecessary and as embarrassing as Morris’s.
[Warning: Graphic, explicit content from here on out. Feel free to stop reading now. We totally understand.]
Let’s talk about cats for a minute first. If you’re a cat owner, you probably know that one of the potential hazards for male cats is urinary tract blockage. They can’t get the urine out, so it backs up and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and the resulting infection, which can be fatal if untreated and is horrifically painful besides. Today’s vets have all kinds of treatments for this condition, from diet to surgery. Apparently, male humans can suffer from this problem as well, and Morris was one of the sufferers.
Now, Gouverneur Morris was a physically brave man. When he was sixteen, a precocious young man bound for college, a servant at his family home inadvertently poured a vat of boiling water on his arm. As you probably know, few things in life are as painful as burns, and imagine a horrific burn in an era where there wasn’t even pain medication, much less skin grafts and all the other treatments we have now. The teenaged Morris endured the burn, which apparently took off pretty much everything on his arm, leaving him with little more than bone and scar tissue. Then, as a young man, he was caught in the wheel of a carriage and lost a leg as a result. Not only did this not slow him down in his career as a patriot and diplomat—it was Morris, not Madison, who actually wrote our Constitution—but he was well known for his enjoyment of dancing on his wooden peg as well as participating in physical activities of all kinds.
Perhaps it was his physical intrepidity that caused him to take matters into his own hands when, in middle age, he began to experience urinary tract blockage. Or perhaps it was his already extensive knowledge of the ineptitude—or worse—of the doctors of his day, whose primary treatment was bleeding their patients to death (as in Washington’s case) in an attempt to release “vile humours.”
Whatever the case, when Morris began experiencing the symptoms of urinary tract blockage, he basically took the equivalent of an awl and attempted to reopen his urinary passage on his own. We can’t imagine the courage this took or the pain it caused, but incredibly, it apparently worked, at least the first time. Unfortunately, as is also the case with cats, the condition tends to recur, and it did in Morris’s case too. This time, when he tried the awl trick, he developed a fatal infection and died as a result. Of course, if he hadn’t attempted some form of treatment, he would have died from the infection caused by the blockage. And if he’d called in medical help, they’d probably have killed him off even faster.
But old Ben and his catheter could probably have saved him. True to form, Morris remained calm and collected to the last, giving us all a moving example of how to bear suffering and death with dignity and grace. But we wish he’d known about Ben’s catheter. After everything he’d been through, we’d have loved it if he could have enjoyed a ripe old age.
‘Til next time,