6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents

Image credit: 
Public Domain / Courtesy of FDR Library

Being the president of the United States comes with all kinds of perks, but political office can't protect a person from disease. Here are six ailments that afflicted US presidents, many of which can be prevented today.

1. Polio (1 President)

In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted a rare adult case of polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. The affliction didn't stop him from becoming president in 1933 and forming the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (commonly known as the "March of Dimes") in 1938 to fight polio.

FDR held annual "Birthday Balls" in part to raise money for the March of Dimes, which in turn funded research that led to the polio vaccine. That vaccine eventually rid more than 99% of the world of polio, though FDR didn't live to see it.

Note: Although polio is prevented by the vaccine, it's still extremely hard to treat in the unvaccinated. For this one, the only "cure" is prevention.

2. Malaria (8 Presidents + 1 First Lady)

Theodore Roosevelt, 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Malaria has afflicted a bunch of presidents. George Washington had it, as did Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, James Madison, and Ulysses S. Grant. James Monroe reportedly came down with malaria after visiting a swampy part of the Mississippi River, though some sources dispute this. Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt contracted malaria in the Amazon rainforest (leading me to suggest that future world travelers "speak softly and carry a bednet").

James Garfield contracted malaria in 1848 when he was just 16. He was working on the Ohio Canal at the time, and made a full recovery. In 1881, his wife Lucretia contracted malaria while Garfield was president. She was apparently bitten by a mosquito inhabiting the marshes that still abutted the White House at the time. Lucretia Garfield was in New Jersey recovering from her illness when James Garfield was shot. Lucretia recovered; James did not.

In 2005, President George W. Bush started the President's Malaria Initiative to combat the disease. About time!

Malaria has many treatments, including quinine, which was originally delivered in tonic water, often alongside a cheery dash of gin. (Quinine is still often present in tonic water, though now its dose is non-medicinal.)

3. Tuberculosis, Dysentery, Diphtheria, You Name It (1 Very Special President)

"Life of George Washington -- The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed -- probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

4. Smallpox (At Least 2 Presidents)

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln came down with smallpox shortly after delivering the Gettysburg Address. He reportedly had to shave his iconic beard due to a rash that appeared during treatment. Lincoln suffered from a variety of ailments, nearly reaching Washingtonian levels of ill health.

As mentioned above, George Washington also suffered from smallpox. The smallpox vaccine protected later presidents, and indeed smallpox was the first infectious disease to be eradicated in humans, reaching that milestone in 1979.

5. Cholera (At Least 2 Presidents)

Zachary Taylor tintype, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Heritage Auction Galleries.

Zachary Taylor believed, like many of his era, that cholera was an act of God. Today we know that cholera comes from dirty water. (This discovery, and ongoing efforts to provide clean water and sanitation to developing countries, has resulted in a drastic decrease in cholera, though it still breaks out from time to time.)

In an attempt to stop the spread of cholera, President Taylor ordered a one-day fast for the first Friday of August in 1849. It didn’t work. Sadly, Taylor died from cholera.

James K. Polk also appears to have died from cholera, just a few months after his term as president ended. He died in Nashville, just 103 days after leaving office.

Cholera has been the subject of a fascinating book, and one of the most remarkable facts about the disease is how easy its treatment can be: you simply hydrate the patient and wait for the diarrhea to pass.

6. Pneumonia (At Least 3 Presidents)

Andrew Jackson died from either tuberculosis or pneumonia, two curable diseases that still afflict millions worldwide. In 2012, according to the WHO, TB infected 8.6 million people, and 1.3 million died from the disease. Meanwhile, pneumonia remains the leading cause of death among children worldwide, killing more children under age 5 every year than AIDS, malaria, and TB combined.

"Death of Harrison" / Currier & Ives, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

William Henry Harrison was also a victim of pneumonia. The Miller Center at UVa reports on his death (emphasis added):

William Henry Harrison's inaugural address lasted nearly two hours, but in the days before electronic media, oratory of such duration was common. During the address, the new president wore no coat or hat. As a soldier, farmer, and outdoorsman, Harrison had spent much of his life in bad weather. But he was far from young now, and when he followed the address with a round of receptions in his wet clothing, it resulted in a bad chill. Within days, he had a cold, which developed into pneumonia.

Doctors were called in, but their medical practices were crude: heated suction cups to supposedly draw out the disease, and the same bleeding tactics that had killed George Washington. All this only weakened Harrison further, and three weeks after taking office, he was clearly dying. As a last resort, a number of Native American "remedies" were tried, including one involving the use of live snakes. Exactly one month after taking the oath of office, Harrison was dead. It was the most fleeting presidency ever, lasting one scant month.

Pneumonia is still very dangerous, though antibiotics are often effective in treating it. Unfortunately, no such drugs were available for Jackson, Harrison, or Washington.

February 17, 2014 - 12:00pm
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