Case History January/February 2005

Presidential Ailments


An inauguration is a good time to take stock of the health of the man who will guide the country for the next four years. Though health issues played only a minor role in the 2004 campaign (John Kerry easily overcame his prostate cancer, and George Bush is a veritable gym rat), medical problems have profoundly affected some U.S. presidents. Most were less profound than the pneumonia that William Henry Harrison contracted at his inauguration and died from a month later. None was more unpleasant than the anal fissure said to have tormented James Garfield (except, perhaps, the rectal feeding prescribed during the eighty-one days it took him to die from an assassin's bullet, in 1881). Still, there is always the fear that a president could be physically incapacitated. A look back at the medical records reveals numerous presidential ailments; here is a list of some maladies suffered by the past ten U.S. presidents during their political careers.

George W. Bush. Torn meniscus in one knee; three actinic keratoses (pre-cancerous skin lesions) on the face; colonic polyps; loss of consciousness after choking on a pretzel.

Bill Clinton. Torn right quadriceps tendon; reflux esophagitis (acid-reflux disease); partial loss of hearing in both ears; allergies (to mold spores, dust, weed pollen, grass pollen, cats, beef, and milk); rectal bleeding (for which he underwent a colonoscopy).

George H.W. Bush. Graves' disease (hyperthyroidism), which caused atrial fibrillations and hand tremors (he was treated with digitalis and procainamide, both of which can affect brain function); insomnia (for which he took Halcion until 1992, after it had been banned in Great Britain); flu (which caused him to vomit on the prime minister of Japan and then faint); early glaucoma in the left eye; mild degenerative arthritis; actinic keratoses.

Ronald Reagan. Enlarged (non-cancerous) prostate; basal-cell carcinoma (skin cancer) on the nose; colon cancer (treatment for which removed two feet of his colon); colonic polyps; partial hearing loss in both ears; a collapsed lung (after the 1981 assassination attempt); severe nearsightedness.

Jimmy Carter. A broken collarbone sustained while cross-country skiing; hemorrhoids.

Gerald Ford. Despite a reputation for clumsiness, Ford suffered no injuries requiring treatment. (Among the fittest presidents, he skied, golfed, swam, and played tennis.)

Richard Nixon. Phlebitis (inflamma-tion of a vein); pneumonia requiring hospitalization.

Lyndon Johnson. Heart attack; skin cancer; and gall-bladder disease (he famously displayed the scar from his cholecystectomy to the press).

John F. Kennedy. Burning during urination; back problems that required a brace and amphetamines; Addison's disease (atrophy of the adrenal glands); gastrointestinal problems that required him to take oral and intravenous cortisone, three diarrhea medicines (one of which contained opium), testosterone, and phenobarbital.

Dwight Eisenhower. Bowel obstruction; regional enteritis (Crohn's disease); heart attack; stroke; arthritis.

Sources: The Health of the Presidents, by John R. Bumgarner;; Facts on File

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Benjamin Healy is an Atlantic Monthly deputy managing editor.

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