The Medical Ordeals of JFK

The core of the Kennedy image was, in many respects, a lie. A presidential biographer, granted access to medical files, portrays a man far sicker than the public knew.
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Kennedy's chronically bad back was only one of his enduring ailments. Here, he is heading to the presidential yacht in June 1961 to host the Japanese prime minister. (Associated Press)

The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history—no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed. Kennedy, like so many of his predecessors, was more intent on winning the presidency than on revealing himself to the public. On one level this secrecy can be taken as another stain on his oft-criticized character, a deception maintained at the potential expense of the citizens he was elected to lead. Yet there is another way of viewing the silence regarding his health—as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way? …

Evidence of Kennedy’s medical problems has been trickling out for years. In 1960, during the fight for the Democratic nomination, John Connally and India Edwards, aides to Lyndon B. Johnson, told the press—correctly—that Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a condition of the adrenal glands characterized by a deficiency of the hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, sodium and potassium, and the response to stress. They described the problem as life-threatening and requiring regular doses of cortisone. The Kennedys publicly denied the allegation …

It appears that Richard Nixon may have tried at one point to gain access to Kennedy’s medical history. In the fall of 1960, as he and JFK battled in what turned out to be one of the closest presidential elections ever, thieves ransacked the office of Eugene J. Cohen, a New York endocrinologist who had been treating Kennedy for Addison’s disease. When they failed to find Kennedy’s records, which were filed under a code name, they tried unsuccessfully to break into the office of Janet Travell, an internist and pharmacologist who had been relieving Kennedy’s back pain with injections of procaine (an agent similar to lidocaine). Although the thieves remain unidentified, it is reasonable to speculate that they were Nixon operatives; the failed robberies have the aura of Watergate and of the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Using personal letters, Navy records, and oral histories, biographers and historians over the past 20 years have begun to fill in a picture of Jack Kennedy as ill and ailment-ridden for his entire life—a far cry from the paragon of vigor (or “vigah,” in the family’s distinctive Massachusetts accent) that the Kennedys presented. After a sickly childhood he spent significant periods during his prep-school and college years in the hospital for severe intestinal ailments, infections, and what doctors thought for a time was leukemia. He suffered from ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease, which necessitated the administration of regular steroid treatments. And it has been known for some time that Kennedy endured terrible back trouble. He wrote his book Profiles in Courage while recovering from back surgery in 1954 that almost killed him.

JFK dismissed questions about his doctor’s injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”

But the full extent of Kennedy’s medical ordeals has not been known until now. Earlier this year a small committee of Kennedy-administration friends and associates agreed to open a collection of his papers for the years 1955–63. I was given access to these newly released materials, which included X-rays and prescription records from Janet Travell’s files. Together with recent research and a growing understanding of medical science, the newly available records allow us to construct an authoritative account of JFK’s medical tribulations. And they add telling detail to a story of lifelong suffering, revealing that many of the various treatments doctors gave Kennedy, starting when he was a boy, did far more harm than good. In particular, steroid treatments that he may have received as a young man for his intestinal ailments could have compounded—and perhaps even caused—both the Addison’s disease and the degenerative back trouble that plagued him later in life. Travell’s prescription records also confirm that during his presidency—and in particular during times of stress, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in April of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962—Kennedy was taking an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; anti-spasmodics for his colitis; antibiotics for urinary-tract infections; antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines.

Kennedy’s charismatic appeal rested heavily on the image of youthful energy and good health he projected. This image was a myth. The real story, disconcerting though it would have been to contemplate at the time, is actually more heroic. It is a story of iron-willed fortitude in mastering the difficulties of chronic illness …

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