The Medical Ordeals of JFK

Recent assessments of Kennedy's presidency have tended to raise "questions of character"—to view his Administration in the context of his sometimes wayward personal behavior. Such assessments are incomplete. Newly uncovered medical records reveal that the scope and intensity of his physical suffering were beyond what we had previously imagined. What Kennedy endured—and what he hid from the public—both complicates and enlarges our understanding of his character
The Cover-Up

Because his absence from Washington over so long a period could not be hidden, the Kennedys had no choice but to acknowledge JFK's condition. Public awareness of his surgery and slow recovery, however, benefited rather than undermined his image. Kennedy came through this medical ordeal looking courageous—not weak and possibly unfit for higher office, as his family had feared. Nevertheless, the Kennedys did not trust that coming clean about his health problems in the future would generate a similar result. Consequently, the true state of his health now became a carefully guarded secret. His closest aides did not know the full extent of his problems. Although Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary, made sure that he took his daily medications (as many as eight different kinds), she apparently had limited knowledge of why he needed them. The evidence I've seen suggests that only Jackie, Joe, Bobby, and Jack's doctors were fully informed.

One thing in particular remained unknown until the Travell records were opened this year: from May of 1955 until October of 1957, as he tried to get the 1956 vice-presidential nomination and then began organizing his presidential campaign, Kennedy was hospitalized nine times, for a total of forty-five days, including one nineteen-day stretch and two week-long stays. The record of these two and a half years reads like the ordeal of an old man, not one in his late thirties, in the prime of life.

All Kennedy's confinements at this time were at New York Hospital, except for one in July of 1955, at New England Baptist. Terrible back pain triggered an eight-day hospitalization beginning on May 26, 1955. General work-ups from this period noted continuing back miseries, with a chronic abscess at the site of his 1954-1955 surgeries; repeated bouts of colitis with abdominal pain, diarrhea, and dehydration; and prostatitis marked by pain on urination and ejaculation, along with urinary-tract infections. On July 3 he spent one day at New England Baptist being treated for severe diarrhea. Eleven days later he entered New York Hospital for a week to relieve his back pain and treat another attack of diarrhea.

On January 11, 1956, he spent three days in the hospital, where he received large doses of antibiotics to counter respiratory and urinary-tract infections. When nausea, vomiting, dehydration, and continuing urinary discomfort occurred at the end of January 1957, he spent two more days in the hospital. In July abdominal cramps put him in the hospital again for forty-eight hours. Fevers of unknown origin, severe abdominal discomfort, weight loss, throat and urinary-tract infections, a recurrence of his back abscess (which was surgically drained), and his all too familiar acute back pain and spasms resulted in three hospitalizations for a total of twenty-two miserable days in September and October.

During this time Kennedy had zero flexion and extension of his back, meaning that he could not bend forward or backward at all; only with great difficulty could he turn over in bed, sit in a low chair, or reach across a table to pull papers toward him. He also had problems bending his right knee and from a sitting position could raise his left leg to only 25 percent of what was considered normal height. There was "exquisite tenderness" in his back, and he was suffering from arthritis. Yet he managed to hide all this from everyone but his doctors and intimates.

In 1955 Kennedy had consulted Janet Travell about muscle spasms in his left lower back, which radiated to his left leg and made him unable to "put weight on it without intense pain." He asked her repeatedly about the origin of his back troubles, but she found it impossible "to reconstruct by hindsight what might have happened to him over the years." It was clear to her, however, that Kennedy "resented" the back surgeries, which had brought him no relief and "seemed to only make him worse." He might have done better, of course, to blame the steroids that weakened his bones.

According to the Travell records, the treatments for his various ailments included ingested and implanted DOCA for the Addison's, and large doses of penicillin and other antibiotics to combat the prostatitis and the abscess. He also received injections of procaine at "trigger points" to relieve back pain; anti-spasmodics—principally Lomotil and trasentine—to control the colitis; testosterone to keep up his weight (which fell with each bout of colitis and diarrhea); and Nembutal to help him sleep. He had terribly elevated cholesterol, 410 in one testing, apparently aggravated by the testosterone, which may have added to his stomach and prostate troubles.

Kennedy's collective health problems were not enough to deter him from running for President. Though they were a considerable burden, no one of them impressed him as life-threatening. Nor did he believe that the many medications he took would reduce his ability to work effectively; on the contrary, he saw them as ensuring his competence to deal with the demands of the office. And apparently none of his many doctors told him that were he elevated to the presidency, his health problems (or the treatments for them) could pose a danger to the country.

After reaching the White House, Kennedy believed it was more essential than ever to hide his afflictions. The day after his election, in response to a reporter's question, he declared himself in "excellent" shape and dismissed the rumors of Addison's disease as false. An article based largely on information supplied by Bobby Kennedy echoed JFK's assertions. Published in Today's Health, an American Medical Association journal, and summarized in The New York Times, the article described JFK as being in "superb physical condition." Though it reported some adrenal insufficiency, it said that a daily oral medication neutralized the problem, and it assured readers that Kennedy would have no problem handling the pressures of the presidency.

Presented by

Robert Dallek is a professor of history at Boston University. His book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, from which this article is drawn, will be published next fall by Little, Brown. Jeffrey Kelman, M.S., M.D., contributed his medical expertise to the article.

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