Ben Walker in black shirt and white background

If you’re a cleaning professional, you ought to familiarize yourself with the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield. He was assassinated shortly after Abraham Lincoln and had one of the shortest-lived presidencies in US history. Perhaps most importantly though, he was a president who began his career path to the White House as a janitor.

Garfield made his start as the janitor at what is now Hiram College — called Western Reserve Eclectic Institute at the time. He took the job to help pay for his education and the library was his primary assignment.

As the legend goes, Garfield made the library his sanctuary. He kept it very clean, he made many friends, and in his off hours, he read every book in the building.

By the end of his first year at the Institute, Garfield had made a name for himself as the most knowledgeable person on campus. By his third year, he had been promoted to professor and was teaching Greek and Latin. He left Hiram, Ohio, shortly after to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Williams College in Massachusetts. When he eventually returned, he became the principal of the Institute.

Later, Garfield became the presidential nominee quite by accident. Even though he had spent a portion of his career as an elected official, he was never very interested in politics. Yet his presidential nomination came when he was asked to give a speech at the Republican National Convention on behalf of the presumptive nominee. As he spoke, he began a rhetorical call and response to fire up the crowd. With each call of “Who should lead the country?” the crowd slowly began to chant Garfield’s name. By the time he was finished, Garfield was the topic of every convention conversation. He ended up securing the party nomination and winning a close election.

Almost 100 days into his first term, a man named Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back at a train station. Guiteau had become disenchanted with Garfield because the president refused his repeated applications for a position in public office. Garfield survived the shooting and was taken back to the White House while doctors attempted to find the bullet.
When Garfield’s self-appointed chief physician probed the wound, he did so with dirty instruments and unclean hands. Driven by ego, the physician insisted that the bullet was on one side of Garfield’s body and would only probe that side — opening up an eight-inch wound. Meanwhile, the bullet remained embedded in the opposite side.

The president developed a horrible infection, pneumonia and became septic. He died 79 days after the shooting. During his murder trial, Guiteau famously defended himself by telling the court that he was guilty of shooting the president, not killing him.

The tragedy in all of this is that these events took place during a time where the ideas about hand hygiene observed by Ignaz Semmelweis in Austria were still widely seen as “quackery” by many American medical practitioners. The ideas of handwashing were either ignored or ridiculed and didn’t become a commonly accepted medical practice until the early 1900’s.

Most modern scholars agree that had handwashing been a prevalent medical practice at the time, James Garfield’s death would have been prevented.

James Garfield, the janitor president, was killed by a nosocomial infection. 

Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.