Four died in office
With so much of today’s news focused on Washington and the U.S. government, it may surprise you how little we knew about past leaders. Specifically, about their health. The president of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world but many of our former Commanders-in-Chief suffered from serious illnesses that are today preventable. Four presidents actually died in office due to poor health. Zachary Taylor, for example, took office in 1849 only to die the following year. On July 4, 1850, Taylor attended a ceremony at the then under-construction Washington Monument. He reportedly consumed only raw vegetables and cherries and drank large amounts of milk. Taylor took ill with violent stomach cramps the following day and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis, becoming the second president, after William Henry Harrison, to die while in office. The former hero of the Mexican-American War was 65 at the time of his death.
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous and beloved presidents this country has ever had. He was also one of the sickliest of our nation’s leaders. It’s been widely reported that Lincoln as well as his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, suffered from recurring depression. The depression is thought to be related to the deaths of two of his children at young ages. The 16th president of the United States also had malaria at least twice and contracted smallpox even though it was reportedly a mild case of the disease. He reportedly had to shave off his trademark beard due to a rash associated with the ailment. His gangly form and extreme height has led many geneticists to suspect that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, disorder that affects connective tissue. People with Marfan syndrome are often very tall, thin, and loose jointed. Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865 by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth and laid in a coma for nine hours before dying the next day.
Many of our nation’s presidents concealed their health problems for fear of ruining their political careers or causing concern about the country’s appearance to the rest of the world. When Grover Cleveland needed surgery in 1893 to remove a cancerous tumor in his mouth, he did it secretly, on a friend’s yacht cruising through Long Island Sound. Cleveland thought it would cause an economic crisis if the information was released that he had cancer, and his illness was not revealed until 15 years after his death from a heart attack. During the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1918, the president suffered a stroke while on a speaking tour of the Western states that rendered the left side of his body immobile. His first lady, the secretary of state, his personal physician and private secretary all kept his condition secret. The White House attributed Wilson’s ill health to “nervous exhaustion.” He died in 1924, three years after leaving office.
FDR and polio
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president to serve four terms, was stricken with polio in 1921. He tried numerous therapies and even bought the Warm Springs resort in Georgia seeking a cure. Despite his efforts, he never regained the use of his legs. He later established a foundation at Warm Springs to help others, and instituted the March of Dimes program that eventually funded an effective polio vaccine. FDR’s polio which required the use of a wheelchair, crutches and leg braces was largely kept from the public. According to the University of Arizona, Roosevelt won the cooperation of news reporters to minimize the extent of his condition, and was generally photographed only above the waist. The stress of leading the United States through World War II took its toll on Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure in 1944. A year after winning his fourth term, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
JFK and illnesses
Despite suffering from a number of physical illnesses, John F. Kennedy would become the youngest man ever elected president in the United States. The extent of Kennedy’s illnesses were not revealed until years after his death. He suffered from colitis, duodenal ulcers, osteoporosis and Addison’s disease, a life-threatening insufficiency of the adrenal glands, requiring twice daily steroids. By 1950, he had constant back pain from vertebral collapse. From the mid-1950s, he was taking powerful narcotics like Demerol and methadone. He took barbiturates for sleep and tranquilizers for anxiety, as many as eight medications a day. There’s some indication that he may have abused amphetamines. Before press conferences, he often required injections in the back to control his pain. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullets as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas.
Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.