American Presidents and Infectious Diseases
Happy Fourth of July! In honor of this historic U.S. holiday we’ve compiled a list showing how infectious diseases have affected the lives of our most heralded leaders – the American presidents. These concise accounts are evidence that diseases can strike anyone, anywhere at any time, and even in the White House.
George Washington (1789-97)
The first president of the United States witnessed more epidemics of infectious disease than any other president, so much so that PBS NewsHour published a blog post entitled “The Nine Deadly Diseases That Plagued George Washington.”
In 1751, a 19-year-old Washington traveled to visit his half-brother who was sick with tuberculosis in Barbados. While visiting, George came down with smallpox but fully recovered despite a few scars. Unfortunately, his tubercular half-brother could not overcome his disease and died in 1752.
In 1793, yellow fever hit Philadelphia in what is now regarded as one of the most notorious epidemics of the disease in history. Washington had to flee along with much of the city’s population to remain out of reach of the mosquitoes that spread yellow fever.
Washington is thought to have been a victim of diphtheria around the age of 15 and malaria at the age of 17. He was a frequent victim of dysentery, or bloody diarrhea, while serving in the French and Indian War and other battles. Washington is also thought to have suffered from quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle (a large potentially cancerous bump on his face), epiglottitis (a throat infection that can be caused by Haemophilus influenzae bacteria), and pneumonia.
Washington’s death may have been partly the result of epiglottitis following a cold. He died at the age of 67 on December 14, 1799, after having endured his fair share of diseases.
John Adams (1797-1801)
Adams’s wife, Abigail, acquired typhoid fever in October 1818, which led to her death on the 28th of the month.
Adams underwent smallpox variolation; he described the process and results this way:
“In the Winter of 1764, the Small Pox prevailing in Boston, I went with my Brother into Town and was inocculated under the Direction of Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and Dr. Joseph Warren. This Distemper was very terrible even by Inocculation at that time. My Physicians dreaded it, and prepared me, by a milk Diet and a Course of Mercurial Preparations, till they reduced me very low before they performed the operation. They continued to feed me with Milk and Mercury through the whole Course of it, and salivated me to such a degree, that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger. By such means they conquered the Small Pox, which I had very lightly, but they rendered me incapable … of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington, who attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”— John Adams, Autobiography Part 1
Interestingly, Adams was the first president approached about the discovery of vaccination. In 1800, Benjamin Waterhouse, a strong advocate and frequent correspondent of Edward Jenner, wrote to President Adams about the new practice of using cowpox as a preventative for smallpox. Adams, however, did not respond, and Waterhouse was forced to try again by contacting the more receptive vice-president Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
In 1806, following Waterhouse’s correspondence about Jenner’s innovation, Jefferson advocated for smallpox vaccination in America. In fact, after learning about the discovery, Jefferson invited Native American tribal leaders to Washington to show them the practice – using pictures and translated instructions.
Andrew Jackson (1829-37)
At age 14, Jackson contracted smallpox while being held prisoner by the British during the War of Independence. Jackson recovered and later became the seventh president of the United States. However, his brother Robert, who also contracted the disease while imprisoned, died.
Martin Van Buren (1837-41)
In 1807, Van Buren married his childhood sweetheart Hannah Hoes. They had four sons. Hannah became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1819. Her death was devastating to Van Buren and he never remarried.
William Henry Harrison (1841)
Harrison was the first president to die in office: he succumbed to pneumonia only one month after his inauguration in 1841.
James K. Polk (1845-49)
Polk served one term in office and died of cholera three months after returning home to Tennessee in 1849.
Zachary Taylor (1849-50)
Taylor was the second president to die in office. While traveling in the summer of 1849, Taylor came down with violent diarrhea and fever. Although he recovered, he came down with similar symptoms a year later on July 4, when he was diagnosed as having “cholera morbus” or gastroenteritis. Four days later Taylor died following extensive diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pains.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)
Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in the afternoon of Novermber 19, 1863, and he began to feel weak and feverish just a few hours later. By the fourth day of his illness, it was clear that Lincoln had smallpox. He remained ill for about four weeks. Lincoln recovered, although his valet, William H. Johnson, who also contracted the disease, did not.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)
Arthur’s wife Ellen (Nell) Arthur died of pneumonia at age 42– a few years before Arthur was inaugurated as president.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)
A president of the famed “Gilded Age,” Harrison died of pneumonia in 1901.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)
Wilson is said to have contracted Spanish influenza while he was in France helping to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles in the spring of 1919. This influenza pandemic had a great effect on World War I, leaving many soldiers dead of flu rather than guns or gases.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-29)
Coolidge's son Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of blood poisoning, or septicemia, the result of an infected blister on his foot, in 1924. The boy was just 16 years old. John Kolmer, MD, a Fellow of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, attended to the boy and wrote an account of the event transcribed here on our blog.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)
In August 1921, budding statesman Franklin Delano Roosevelt fell ill with polio during a visit to his family’s summer retreat in Canada. His legs remained paralyzed and he had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life (he refused to be photographed in his paralyzed state to avoid rumors of weakness and debility).
Roosevelt’s personal experience with polio became one of the most important aspects of the efforts to develop a vaccine. In 1938, Roosevelt became the icon of the “March of Dimes,” a grass-roots fundraising effort where people all over the country sent dimes to the president to help fund the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Over the years the March of Dimes raised millions of dollars: the fruit of their efforts was Jonas Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine, tested in 1954 on 2 million children or “polio pioneers,” and Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962.
Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61)
Eisenhower's son Doud Dwight (Icky) Eisenhower died of scarlet fever in 1921 at age three. Scarlet fever is usually caused by streptococcal bacteria and was a significant cause of death for childen before antibiotics were available.
Gerald Ford (1974-77)
By Ford’s time infectious diseases like smallpox and typhoid fever were no longer major killers. The age of vaccines had dawned and Ford met with Maurice Hilleman and other scientists on March 3, 1976 to discuss a vaccine response to swine influenza. Ford helped get Congress to commit funds to a nationwide vaccination program that had an ignominious end.
Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
Under Carter’s presidency the first comprehensive childhood vaccination program was launched in 1977. Betty Bumpers, wife of Arkansas then-Governor Dale Bumpers, contacted the administration advocating for improved immunization efforts. Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn Carter, became involved and helped Mrs. Bumpers to advocate for state laws requiring vaccination for school entry.
In 1991, Mrs. Bumpers and Mrs. Carter started an immunization campaign called “Every Child by Two,” which works to ensure that all American children immunized against common diseases by the age of 2.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Obama has frequently spoken of his daughter Sasha's bout with meningitis (pathogen unknown to us) when she was an infant. Sasha survived, and today is a healthy young woman.
As you can see, infectious disease have shaped the lives of many American leaders and their families. If you’ve heard of other presidents or world leaders who have been victims of infectious disease, post your comment below: we’d love to hear from you and add to our ongoing research.
Saunders, Paul. Edward Jenner: The Cheltenham Years 1795-1823. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1982, 110.