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.

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 …

A Thousand Days of Suffering

During his time in the White House, despite public indications of continuing back difficulties, Kennedy enjoyed an image of robust good health. But according to the Travell records, medical attention was a fixed part of his routine. He was under the care of an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist, and a urologist, along with that of Janet Travell, Admiral George Burkley, and Max Jacobson, an émigré doctor from Germany who now lived in New York and had made a reputation by treating celebrities with “pep pills,” or amphetamines, that helped to combat depression and fatigue. Jacobson, whom patients called “Dr. Feelgood,” administered amphetamines and back injections of painkillers that JFK believed made him less dependent on crutches …

The Travell records reveal that during the first six months of his term, Kennedy suffered stomach, colon, and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness, and high cholesterol, in addition to his ongoing back and adrenal ailments. His physicians administered large doses of so many drugs that Travell kept a “Medicine Administration Record,” cataloguing injected and ingested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot packs for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep. Before press conferences and nationally televised speeches his doctors increased his cortisone dose to deal with tensions harmful to someone unable to produce his own corticosteroids in response to stress. Though the medications occasionally made Kennedy groggy and tired, he did not see them as a problem. He dismissed questions about Jacobson’s injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works” …

Kennedy continued to need extensive medication. His condition at the time of the Cuban missile crisis is a case in point. The Travell records show that during the 13 days in October of 1962 when Moscow and Washington brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, Kennedy took his usual doses of anti-spasmodics to control his colitis, antibiotics for a flare-up of his urinary-tract problem and a bout of sinusitis, and increased amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone, along with salt tablets, to control his Addison’s disease and boost his energy. Judging from the tape recordings made of conversations during this time, the medications were no impediment to lucid thought during these long days; on the contrary, Kennedy would have been significantly less effective without them, and might even have been unable to function. But these medications were only one element in helping Kennedy to focus on the crisis; his extraordinary strength of will cannot be underestimated.

This is not to suggest that Kennedy was superhuman, or to exaggerate his ability to endure physical and emotional ills. On November 2, 1962, he took 10 additional milligrams of hydrocortisone and 10 grains of salt to boost himself before giving a brief report to the American people on the dismantling of the Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In December, Jackie complained to the president’s gastroenterologist, Russell Boles, that the antihistamines for food allergies had a “depressing action” on the president. She asked Boles to prescribe something that would assure “mood elevation without irritation to the gastrointestinal tract.” The Travell records reveal that Boles prescribed one milligram twice a day of Stelazine, an anti-psychotic that was also used as a treatment for anxiety. In two days, Kennedy showed marked improvement, and he apparently never needed the drug again …

Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy before the president’s medical ailments could. But the evidence suggests that Kennedy’s physical condition contributed to his demise. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was, as always, wearing a corsetlike back brace as he rode through Dallas. Oswald’s first bullet struck him in the back of the neck. Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect, the second, fatal shot to the head might not have found its mark.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.

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