With so much scrutiny placed on modern presidents, Americans may be surprised to learn that many previous U.S. presidents hid their illness, afflictions and even their surgeries from the public. Robert Lahita, MD, Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, has studied the subject and recently gave a lecture to physicians and medical residents called, “Illness in the Presidency.”
“Throughout the history of this country, there were attempts to keep illnesses of the presidents secret to avoid public concern,” says Dr. Lahita. “Among the most famous nondisclosures of health problems occurred during the administrations of Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.”
Dr. Lahita relates that in the midst of the economic turmoil of the 1893 financial panic, President Cleveland found a lesion on the left side of his palate that was said to be cancerous. As banks called in loans and Americans waited for their leader to create stability, the President secretly had the tumor removed on the yacht Oneida on July 1, 1893 as it sailed up the east river to his summer home. The crew was sworn to secrecy.
A significant case of nondisclosure also occurred in the Wilson presidency. In 1918, on a speaking tour of the western states, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him unable to move the left side of his body. His first lady, the secretary of state, personal physician and private secretary all kept his illness a secret.
“It is now accepted that the first lady, in actuality his second wife, really acted as president for most of Wilson’s term,” reports Dr. Lahita.
While it has been known that Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the last year of his life, suffered with serious cardiac problems, the public was not told that in his second term FDR was diagnosed with a deadly skin cancer, melanoma, in a lesion over his left eyebrow. This disease would metastasize to Roosevelt's abdomen and brain, causing a tumor that eventually killed him.
In 1967, the 25thamendment to the Constitution was passed to insure that the public could no longer be kept in the dark about presidential illness. The new amendment insured that duties would fall to the Vice President in cases of disability. Today the public is given regular updates about everything from President Obama’s smoking habits to his health regimens.
“There is an effort to portray presidents as active, healthy people,” says Dr. Lahita. “We see them jogging, having colonoscopies, eating healthy food and taking part in sports. The appearance of good health adds to the president’s positive image.”
Illness and Conditions of the Presidents
It has been estimated that 50 percent of all U.S. Presidents suffered from mental illness, some while in office. Dr. Lahita lists John Adams as a manic depressive and reports that James Madison suffered from a high fever that left him “deranged” for a period of three weeks. Abraham Lincoln also suffered from severe depression.
Other conditions that presidents are thought to have brought into office include: George Washington, Klinefelter syndrome; Thomas Jefferson, rheumatoid arthritis; James Madison, epilepsy; Abraham Lincoln, Marfan’s syndrome; Chester A. Arthur, chronic renal disease; and John F. Kennedy, Addison’s disease.
Many of these conditions required extensive medical treatment and affected the health of these presidents at various times.
Presidential Assassination Attempts and Unusual Deaths
Five presidents were shot while in office, with several dying from those wounds. Theodore Roosevelt, known as the “bull moose” for his reported strength, was shot by a would-be assassin while delivering a speech. Despite the bullet lodged in his chest, he continued his speech for one hour.
Henry Harrison caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died within 30 days, making him the first president to die in office. Dr. Lahita reports that two presidents may have been poisoned in office, although this has never been proven, Zachary Taylor was possibly poisoned by his wife; and abolitionists may have killed and Warren G. Harding, because of his southern sympathies.
The subject of presidential illness is a continuing interest for Dr. Lahita, with an emphasis on how these conditions might alter a leader’s ability to govern.
“One must always remember that Presidents are human beings and suffer the ills that afflict all of us,” says Dr. Lahita, who has a doctorate in microbiology, in addition to his medical degree in internal medicine. “As with all leaders in history, not just Presidents, their health can have indirect effects on the rest of us on the planet.”
In addition to his academic and medical appointments, Dr. Lahita has written and co written numerous books on the topic of lupus, including “Lupus: Everything You Want to Know” and “Women and Autoimmune Disease, Your Body Betrayed.”