Presidential Illnesses Essay Research Paper Illness of
Presidential Illnesses Essay, Research Paper
Illness of the President and the 25th Amendment
Should a president or presidential candidate be required to disclose information about his
health to the public and press? Presidents consider strength an essential aspect of leadership and
many conceal their illnesses and state of health from the public eye ( Presidency 1). There have
been seven medical cover-ups in the White House, three of them being attempts to keep the public
out of the President s private life (Ferrell 1). Fourteen out of the past nineteen United States
Presidents have been seriously ill while in office (Dougherty 1) and one out of every five
Presidents did not survive their full term. Another two-thirds died prematurely after leaving the
White House (Young 3).
The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967 to deal with illness of the
President. However, it was needed much earlier in history. President Madison was the fourth
President of the United States. His term in office was one of the first times in US history
that an official plan that deals with Presidential illness was needed. In 1817, he suffered from
a high fever for three weeks. Many White House visitors during this time spoke of the President
being in a state of delirium. He was so deranged during this period, that many White House
officials thought he was unable to do his job effectively (Young 4).
William Henry Harrison was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1841. He
delivered the longest inaugural address ever. It was very cold outside and he had no overcoat on
(Ferrell 2). Shortly afterwards, President Harrison developed pneumonia with hepatitis and
became very ill (Annas 4). The doctors in the 1800s were less educated and many practiced
Indian medicine. Anyone who felt like being a doctor could call themselves a doctor. Doctors
prescribed remedies such as suction cups, castor oil, ipecac, opium, and other treatments that did
nothing to help President Harrison. He died one month after his inaugural address (Ferrell 1-2).
The twelfth President Zachary Taylor made a speech at the future home of the Washington
Monument. It was an extremely hot day and to cool off, Taylor was eating a bowl of ice and
cherries. The ice contained contaminated water which caused President Taylor to develop
typhoid fever. Doctors gave him brandy and opium but, the typhoid fever took his life a within a
few days (Ferrell 2).
In 1881, President Garfield was shot by an assassin (Young 4). His doctors used their
fingers and unsterile instruments to dig in the wound to try and extract the bullet. It was not life
threatening and should have been left alone. Garfield developed infection from the doctors dirty
fingers and instruments. He died two and one half months later after a sac formed around the
wound and suddenly ruptured. (Ferrell 2).
During the term in office of President Grover Cleveland, the United States was not
involved in any affairs abroad. Things were so calm that President Cleveland occasionally even
answered the White House phone himself. The only real issue at the time was the matter of
currency. The value of silver suffered a dramatic downfall. Cleveland wanted to resolve the issue
by basing currency on gold. However, his Vice President, Stevenson, was a silverite and wanted
to keep using silver (Ferrell 3-4).
In 1889, President Grover Cleveland developed cancer of the mouth. He was determined
to keep his illness hidden from the public because of the bad financial shape that the country was
in at the time (Ferrell 1). Cleveland decided to have surgery to remove the tumor on a boat
traveling along the East River. Cleveland was a heavy drinker making the anesthetic not take
effect very easily. It as a very serious operation. Only about 250 similar operations had been
performed and one out of every seven of patients died (Ferrell 4-7). A portion of Cleveland s jaw
was removed and replaced with an artificial jaw so the President s speech would not be impaired.
The press was told that Cleveland had a toothache and had to have a tooth removed. Cleveland
spoke to Congress shortly after his surgery and no one realized that he recently had surgery
President Cleveland served two terms and then retired (Ferrell 10). His surgery was kept
a secret until 1917 when a participating doctor, William W. Keen, told of the seriousness of his
surgery (Ferrell 3). In 1975, a tissue from Cleveland s jaw was examined and it was discovered
that his tumor was very low grade and would not have grown quickly. The same type of tumor is
found a lot in tobacco and alcohol users (Ferrell 11).
After the assassination of President McKinley he was taken to a small emergency hospital.
He should have been taken to the excellent general hospital that was also nearby. He died within
a few days because of poor medical judgment. He might have survived if he had been taken to the
larger and more experienced hospital after being shot (Ferrell 2-3).
President Woodrow Wilson had a family history of strokes and arteriosclerosis. He should
have never been nominated with his family s poor health history, but he looked strong and was in
seemingly good health so he was nominated (Ferrell 1-2). President Wilson was in office during
World War I. He went to Europe to work out the details of the Treaty of Versailles. He came
back from his trip exhausted and was having trouble getting the senate to approve the treaty. He
embarked on a rally to gain public support of the treaty after being advised by his doctor that he
needed rest and should not go (Lamb 5). While stopped for a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, the
President became ill and was rushed back to the White House. He suffered a massive stroke a few
days later (Ferrell 16). The first announcement to the public about the stroke was that he had
been through so much strain on the trip that his digestive organs suffered a serious reaction. The
second announcement said that he was simply overworked and suffered from exhaustion (Young
4). The truth was that he had complete paralysis on his left side (Presidency 1). This massive
stroke was hidden from the public because he was trying to pass the Treaty of Versailles and get
the League of Nations started. Wilson s physician during this time was not qualified. Wilson had
only appointed him because they were both born in Virginia (Ferrell 13). President Wilson spent
the remainder of his term as an invalid. Many people refer to this time as the regency of Edith
Wilson because she decided what issues the president would or would not be involved in
The White House physician during the term of President Harding was Dr. Charles E.
Sawyer. He knew that Harding had heart problems, but gave no attention to them (Ferrell 1).
Harding suffered from high blood pressure and a heart that could not pump blood out of his lungs.
He was forced to sleep upright so that the blood would drain out of his lungs and allow him to
breath (Ferrell 20). After a trip from Arkansas to California in 1925, Harding became ill and was
given a physical by Dr. Sawyer as well as other physicians. It was discovered that he had an
irregular heartbeat. The doctors all agreed that it was nothing serious. Four days later the
President died from heart problems (Young 4). The public was told that the President died of
food poisoning from crabmeat he had eaten the night before (Lamb 19).
President Calvin Coolidge had a long political career in Massachusetts before becoming
President. As governor he was very active in the matters of his state (Lamb 12). In 1924, just
before winning the election, Coolidge s sixteen year old son died of blood poisoning. President
Coolidge was diagnosed with clinical depression. He lost interest in politics and the presidency,
spending half of the day sleeping. He had little interaction with his cabinet or Congress and gave
them instructions to handle matters of the government (Young 5).
The United States entered World War II on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Unites States
President, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, concealed his declining health from the public. There
were two major health issues with President Roosevelt. The first was his high blood pressure
which would swing up and down erratically. The second problem was President Roosevelt s
incompetent physician, Ross T. McIntire (Ferrell 26-27).
McIntire once gave Roosevelt a bad prescription which was noticed by a doctor of lesser
rank than McIntire and changed. McIntire was embarrassed by the man of lower rank doing a
better job than himself and did all he could to keep this mistake a secret. Roosevelt s medical
records even disappeared from the locked safe at Bethesda Navel Hospital. Many officials said
McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of the medical records (Ferrell 27).
After trips to China, Egypt, and Teheran, for the Teheran Conference in December of
1945, Roosevelt s health began a rapid decline. After the trip he developed influenza with
bronchitis. Roosevelt postponed and even avoided political decisions. His blood pressure rose,
face thinned, his weight dropped, his hands shook, and his mouth hung open. The public began to
worry but Dr. McIntire, Roosevelt s physician, announced that Roosevelt had always had shaky
hands, he was just relaxing his mouth, and that the weight loss was good for him. Roosevelt
never regained his health completely (Ferrell 28-34).
President Roosevelt developed a growth above his left eyebrow which continued to grow
downward to his eye. The growth suddenly disappeared. Rumors spread throughout the
country that it was cancerous. The White House consistently denied the cancerous growth.
Years later it was announced that Roosevelt did have a growth removed, but that it was benign
In the Spring of 1944, Roosevelt suffered from a mild gall bladder attack. Dr. McIntire,
gave him codeine to relieve the painful attack. He suffered another attack in May of 1944.
X-rays revealed a group of cholesterol stones. Dr. Bruenn, his cardiologist placed him on a low
fat diet. President Roosevelt s blood pressure continued to rise year after year. Dr. McIntire did
not take the readings very often so the slight increases did not alarm him.
The President s daughter, Anna, because worried about he father s declining health and
asked Dr. McIntire to try and improve it. So, on March 27, 1944, President Roosevelt was given
a physical at Bethesda Navel Hospital. After the physical, Dr. McIntire asked Dr. Bruenn to see
the President (Ferrell 33-34). Dr. Bruenn found the President with hypertension, obstructive
pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, an enlarged heart, a micro valve that was not closing
properly, and pressure on the aortic valve. Bruenn said with good treatment the President might
survive two more years. McIntire said Roosevelt was in good health for his age (Young 5).
Bruenn s prescription was digitizing, diet, and bed rest. McIntire said Roosevelt was the
President and there was no way he could have bed rest. If Bruenn had not come into the picture,
Roosevelt would have died from McIntire s incompetence. In ten days after Roosevelt received
treatment from Bruenn, his lungs cleared up and his heart got smaller. Bruenn became
Roosevelt s personal physician and McIntire became the spokesperson for Roosevelt s health. Dr.
McIntire continued telling the public that the president was in wonderful health. Once again, the
President s medical records disappeared from Bethesda Navel Hospital. McIntire was the suspect
because he would not want it to get out that he was incompetent throughout his care of the
president (Ferrell 36-38).
With the disapproval of his doctors, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. He said
that nothing was going to interfere with his Presidency, especially while the United States was
involved in World War II. Members of the democratic party wanted to make sure he picked a
very capable and healthy Vice-President because they knew he most probably would not survive a
fourth term. Roosevelt nominated Truman (Ferrell 43).
In January of 1945, Roosevelt entered his fourth term. He was determined to do a good
job even if it killed him. One month into his fourth term, just after the Yalta Conference,
Roosevelt suddenly collapsed at the White House pool. Bruenn and McIntire were rushed to the
pool, but by the time they arrived, it was too late. President Roosevelt had suffered a massive
cerebral hemorrhage and died almost immediately (Ferrell 46-48).
Roosevelt s Vice President, Harry Truman, assumed the office of President. During
Truman s Presidency, an assassination attempt was made on him. The bullet missed him, killing a
Secret Service agent (Lamb 4).
In 1953, President Eisenhower was on the verge of a heart attack. The White House
announced that it was only a stomach ache. Then, in 1955, he had a severe heart attack and
was hospitalized for seven weeks. The press was told that this was a mild heart attack.
Dr. Synder announced that Eisenhower had an attack in Columbia a few years earlier. It was
concealed from the public for fear of a bad impact on his political career (Lamb 8-9). Six months
after his heart attack, it was discovered that Eisenhower has constricted intestines. He had
surgery and was hospitalized for three weeks (Young 5). In 1957, Eisenhower had a stroke,
caused by an aneurysm detected by doctors in 1955, but never treated.
President Eisenhower s doctors only gave him a fifty/fifty chance of surviving a second
term (Lamb 2). He choose to run and was inaugurated in 1961. President Eisenhower was
diagnosed with Madison s Disease, failure of the adrenal glands. He was on medication for
Madison s and never disclosed it to the public (Young 5). Eisenhower lived to be seventy-eight
years old. He was severely ill in his older days. He had stomach pain which continued until his
death (Lamb 15-16). After President Eisenhower s death, his family revealed to the public that he
did have Madison s Disease (Young 5).
It is ironic that our thirty-fifth President, John F. Kennedy, was responsible for the
physical fitness craze in America, yet was ill from the day he was born (Lamb 3). President
Kennedy had Addison s disease, a failure of the immune system. It is not curable, but easily
controlled by medicine. Addison s was denied by Kennedy, his assistants, and his family.
Kennedy had a deep rooted determination to be President and was fearful that if news spread
about Addison s Disease, his political career would be damaged. Kennedy falsely announced to
the public that he suffered from malaria he contracted while in the Pacific (Ferrell 151-152).
The first proof of Kennedy s Addison s Disease came from The Blairs who were writers.
They knew that after a trip to London, the President was taken to the New England Baptist
Hospital. He had been to the same doctor, Dr. Bartel, years earlier for a back problem, so the
Blairs assumed he went to see Dr. Bartel again. They visited Dr. Bartel to inquire about
Kennedy s health. He told them that Kennedy s back problem was congenital and that he did
have Addison s Disease. To control the disease, Dr. Bartel gave Kennedy DOCA shots every
three months and oral cortisone treatments daily. Dr. Bartel s treatment tremendously helped
Kennedy s health, although Kennedy needed back surgery in October of 1921. This was a very
risky surgery for people with Addison s Disease because of their weakened immune system.
Kennedy got a serious infection after the surgery and almost died (Ferrell 151-153).
The second proof of Addison s Disease came in 1955 from an issue of the AMA Journal.
A New York surgeon wrote about a patient of his having Addison s Disease. The magazine
article fit Kennedy s description so perfectly that the Blairs knew it was him. The Blairs published
a book later in 1955 about the two proofs they had of Kennedy s disease (Ferrell 153).
Kennedy was running in the election of 1960 against Johnson and Nixon. The publication
of the Blairs book made reporters wonder if Kennedy was healthier than Nixon or not. Johnson
was older and Kennedy supporters said a President should be young. In retaliation to this remark,
Johnson s supporters announced that Kennedy had Addison s disease. Kennedy quickly quieted
his talk of Johnson being too old for the Presidency. Kennedy won the election of 1960, and
ironically, he chose Johnson as his Vice President. His own supporters were angry because
during the election Johnson had announced that Kennedy had Addison s. Kennedy said it was
fine because the Vice Presidency meant nothing (Ferrell 153-154).
Dr. Travell was chosen by Kennedy to be his personal physician. Travell knew little about
Addison s Disease, but Kennedy chose her because during the campaign she said little about his
Addison s disease. To treat Kennedy s back problems, Travell gave him a rocking chair, a corset,
and anesthetic injections. Kennedy quickly got addicted to the shots. Other physicians realized
Kennedy was addicted to the injections and told Travell she could no longer be in charge of the
President s health care. Dr. Burkley became Kennedy s new physician. After Kennedy s death,
an autopsy was performed and Addison s was not mentioned. Burkley refused to comment on
this (Ferrell 154-156).
After Kennedy s death in 1967, the 25th Amendment was passed (Annas 3). It provides
instructions for the transfer of power from the President to the Vice-president. Section One says
that was the President is removed from office by death, illness, resignation, or impeachment, and
that power will go to the Vice-president. Section Two says after the Vice President moves up to
the President that he should nominate a new Vice-president. He should choose the new Vice
President from members of Congress or the Cabinet. Section Three says the President can send a
letter to Congress saying he can no longer fulfill his duties. When the President is ready to take
the office back, he can write a letter to Congress saying he is ready to fulfill his duties again.
Section Four gives the Vice-president and Congress the power to declare the president disabled
Lyndon Johnson was a healthy child with the exception of whooping cough in the first
grade. Johnson was never confident about his political career. When he was threatened with a
loss, he spoke of withdrawing or got sick. When Johnson was twenty-nine years old he ran for
the House of Representatives. During the campaign, Johnson got appendicitis. Two days before
the vote, he was hospitalized because his appendix almost ruptured. He won the election because
the hospitalization was widely publicized, giving people a reason to vote for him (Gilbert
Johnson was nervous about his new job in the House. He developed a very bad rash on
his hands. When signing letters, he had to wrap his hands in a towel so the blood oozing from his
hands did not smear on the letter. He began to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, worked
long hours, and skipped meals. This took a heavy toll on his physical well being (Gilbert 179).
In 1941, Johnson ran for a place in the Senate. When he heard that his opposing party
was Texas governor, O Daniel, he had to be hospitalized for pneumonia and went into depression.
During the first week of his hospitalization, it was kept a secret. In the second week, the press
found out and spread the news. His loss in this election would be the only one in his political
career (Gilbert 179-180).
In late 1941, Johnson applied for Commissioner to the Navy. He had tonsillitis, sinusitis,
and kidney problems. His bronchial difficulties made him eligible for disability pay. He didn t
want the money, just the recognition of service related disabilities. He left the navy because
President Roosevelt made all Congressmen in the military go to inactive duty (Gilbert 181).
In 1948, Johnson ran for the Senate again. His opponent was Stevenson, the man who
took O Daniel s senate seat. During the campaign, Johnson got kidney stones that wouldn t pass.
He agreed to have surgery and recovered quickly. He won the election by a very narrow margin.
In 1955, Johnson was the Democratic Majority Leader. He smoked heavily, worked eighteen
hour days, and gained weight. He had a mild heart attack in June of 1955, and two weeks later,
he suffered a severe heart attack. He wouldn t go see a doctor because he did not want to ruin
his chances for the Presidency. He finally agreed to go see a doctor, who diagnosed him with
bradycardia syndrome, low blood pressure and pulse rate. He was very depressed and talked of
leaving politics. He stopped smoking, dieted, and lost weight. When he returned to the Senate,
he immediately started all the long hours and hard work again (Gilbert 180-186).
In the election of 1955, President Kennedy asked Johnson to be his Vice-president. It was
an easy job and would be good for Johnson s health. Johnson did not like being Vice-president
because he did not have any real power. On November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was shot and
the twenty-fifth amendment was enacted and Johnson assumed the Presidency. It was a bad
situation, but the transition went smoothly. Johnson began to worry that the stress of the
Presidency would hurt his health and told his family that he would not run in 1964 because his
health would not last. The first lady told him that he should run in 1964 because he would get
depressed watching someone else do his job (Gilbert 186-190).
Johnson won the election of 1964 by a huge landslide. Three days after his inauguration,
he was hospitalized for chest pains and a hacking cough. It was not a heart attack, just cold with
tracheal and bronchial infection. During his hospitalization, Winston Churchill died. When
Johnson heard the news, his temperature immediately went up and he was advised by doctors not
to attend the funeral. After three days, he went back to the White House, and assumed his busy
schedule, although, Mrs. Johnson told him to take it easy and rest (Gilbert 190-193).
In 1965, it was discovered that President Johnson had a large gallstone. It had to be
removed and would be risky with his heart condition. On October 8, the surgery took place at
Bethesda Navel Hospital, and went smoothly. He recovery was slow but that was expected for
his age. Johnson developed post-operative depression and wanted to resign from the Presidency.
In the middle of December, his doctors said he was fully recovered (Gilbert 193-197).
In 1973, the President called the Secret Service and told them he was ill. They rushed to
his bedside with an oxygen machine and found him lying on the floor beside the bed. Doctors
failed at attempts to revive him. He had suffered from a heart attack because two of his three
arteries were completely blocked. He was sixty-four years old (Gilbert 202).
The fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was the only President to
survive being shot in office (Lamb 3-4). In 1981, President Reagan was the target of an
assassination attempt. One half of his blood was lost, his left lung collapsed, and he had no
recordable blood pressure (Young 5-6). The public was told that Reagan was joking with his
doctors during surgery, but he was really with in five minutes of death (Lamb 12-13). The twenty
fifth amendment should have been invoked but, Mr. Darman locked up the succession papers so
they would be unavailable (Ferrell 158). His children were told not to rush to the hospital and the
first lady did not spend the night in the hospital so that the public would be unaware of the
seriousness of the situation (Young 5-6).
In 1985, President Reagan had an operation for colon cancer, lasting about 10 hours.
During that time, the vice-president became the acting President. Two years later in 1987,
Reagan had prostate surgery. The doctors were flown in just in time for the surgery and flown
out as soon as it was over. The press was not allowed to question the doctors because of
the short time period that they were in Washington, D.C.. Updates on the President s health
came only from the Press Secretary (Ferrell 158-159).
President George Bush was the first US President to draw up a contingency plan
(Dougherty 1-2). Shortly after taking office, Bush held a meeting to discuss a plan of succession
in case he became ill in office. He wanted the public to be well informed of his health, therefore
the results of his annual physical were always released to the public (Bush 282).
In May of 1991, Bush noticed his heart beating irregularly after taking a jog. He was
hospitalized for three days. His personal physician, Burton J. Lee III, diagnosed him with Graves
Disease. He had an overactive thyroid (Ferrell 159). He was also becoming tired from the
stresses of the Gulf War and needed some rest. Medication cured his thyroid (Presidency 1). In
1992, the President collapsed while at dinner with the Prime Minister of Japan. Dr. Lee
diagnosed this as gastroenteritis (Ferrell 159-160). Mrs. Bush said by the next after noon, he was
much better, just terribly embarrassed (Bush 450-452).
The current President of the United States, Bill Clinton, is one of the youngest Presidents
in history. During his two terms, he has kept the public well informed of his health (Lamb 6). In
1997, he had surgery to repair a torn tendon. The twenty fifth amendment should have been
invoked, but was not (Young 6). President Clinton has cronic laryngitis which is caused by
excess acid in his stomach. While Clinton sleeps, the acid travels up his esophagus and effects his
vocal cords. His weight swings up and down dramatically, causing stress to his heart. He has
been urged by doctors to keep his weight more stable. Clinton has a considerable amount of
trouble with allergies and takes allergy shots several times a month (Lamb 6-7).
There have been many medical cover-ups during the terms of the forty-two Presidents of
the United States. Candidates feel it will hurt their political career if American citizens find out
they are not in perfect health. The United States should not elect a President on the basis of their
health, but on their ability to perform the duties of the President. Citizens should respect the
privacy of political officials or candidates will be discouraged from running for office in the future
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Ferrell, Robert H. Ill Advised: Presidential Health and Public Trust. Columbia: University of
Missouri Press, 1992.
Gilbert, Robert E. Interview with Lamb. National Cable Satellite Corporation. 1997.
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Fordham University Press, 1998.
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