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Public Domain / Courtesy of FDR Library
Public Domain / Courtesy of FDR Library

6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents

Public Domain / Courtesy of FDR Library
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.

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YouTube / thelostdisney
5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
YouTube / thelostdisney
YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"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.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

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YouTube / ONE
How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
YouTube / ONE
YouTube / ONE

This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.

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