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Is There a Doctor In the House?


His name was Dr. Charles Augustus Leale. On the evening of April 14, 1865, he was a 23-year-old US Army surgeon and the first doctor to reach President Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC.

“Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

His name was Dr. Charles Augustus Leale. On the evening of April 14, 1865, he was a 23-year-old US Army surgeon and the first doctor to reach President Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

Just recently I got to see some of the good doctor’s surroundings while visiting my son, Kyle, who is a junior psych major at George Washington University in the nation’s capitol. First, proper doctor-pedigree—Kyle is the great-grandson of 2 physicians.

Dr. Leale was a great admirer of America’s 16th President and had made a special trip to the theater at 511 10th St. NW that fateful night to catch a glimpse of his commander-in-chief. Only days earlier Leale had witnessed the president, in a joyful post-war mood, give his last public speech from the window of the White House.

History holds that no medical effort back then could have saved the president’s life; John Wilkes Booth’s aim was too deadly that night. “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover,” Leale had said early on. Two other physicians, Charles S. Taft and Albert F. A. King, who had also come to the box, agreed with the diagnosis. What credit for care Leale did get came from the fact that Lincoln lived until morning after so traumatic a head wound.

Leale was out of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College not even 2 months when he entered the president’s box at Ford’s to treat his fallen leader. He was only about 2 years older than my son. And while those were certainly sad times nearly 150 year ago, my own recent occasion in DC was wonderful. It had been one of my dreams, now fulfilled, to walk that city with my only son and see the monuments and talk about history.

And my boy didn’t disappoint. Kyle was smart and funny, sardonic and hopeful, strong and sensitive—and all in a couple days. The guy has always been a fine student of history and active reader, so he was able to keep up with me and my love of Lincoln lore as well as communicate his own awareness of the Great Emancipator.

In addition to Ford’s Theatre, we visited the Peterson House—the boarding home across the street where the president died the next day. (The persons who manage the exhibits have done an exceptional job and I encourage others to visit.) To complete the memorable Abe excursion, we also stopped by the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. I can’t recall if I ever had a better weekend in my life.

As I was driving home (already missing my son), I thought that while I’m not the perfect father, I also know that it’s impossible for me to love anyone more than Kyle (and his sister, Lauren). If I had wished for the perfect son—it would be Kyle. And I thank him for a splendid journey.

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