Presidents Who Had Problems With Their Health

In October 2020, then-President Donald Trump announced that he and Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. He spent the weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he received a number of antiviral treatments before returning to the White House a few days later (via CNN). News outlets and social media buzzed with questions and theories about the timeline of events leading up to the diagnosis, as well as the exact status of Trump's health.

The nation's interest in a president's health is nothing new. Beyond the fact that presidents are political celebrities who must live their lives in the public eye, the health of the commander in chief can have a significant impact on economics and politics. Health scares can send Wall Street into a tailspin, and if a president dies, becomes seriously ill or temporarily incapacitated, or is deemed unfit to serve, the vice president must step in under the rules established by the 25th Amendment (via the History Channel).

While presidents often have larger-than-life personas, they're still flesh-and-blood people with medical issues like everyone else. These ailments — often kept hidden or downplayed — may have, in some cases, impacted a president's ability to perform their duties. In other cases, past presidents' medical histories remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.

George Washington had many 18th-cenutry diseases

Before the era of antibiotics, widespread vaccination, or even daily bathing, people often acquired a plethora of diseases during their lifetime, some of which stuck around for the long run. Presidents were no different. After serving as commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, George Washington helped forge the Constitution and was elected the first president of the newly formed United States from 1789 to 1797. As one of the founding fathers, he helped guide the young nation through turbulent political growing pains (via White House).

Although Washington eventually died of a throat infection at age 67, less than three years after he left office, he contracted a number of diseases that were common during the 18th century. He had diphtheria, a bacterial disease, as a teen (although the disease is most common in children),. He also acquired tuberculosis from his brother and had many bouts of dysentery during his military career. As an adolescent, he had malaria and smallpox, which at the time killed one in three people who contracted it. He had numerous attacks of tonsillitis and pneumonia, as well as a growth on his face called a carbuncle that may have been cancerous.

When he came down with a throat infection called epiglottitis, doctors fell back on a common treatment during the time: bloodletting. They removed about 35% of Washington's blood over the course of 12 hours. Given how brutal this "cure" was, it's no surprise he died soon after (via PBS).

Andrew Jackson likely had mercury and lead poisoning

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, served from 1829 to 1833. Although popular among the people, his policies split the Republican Party into two new parties: the Democratic Republicans (Democrats) who followed him and the National Republicans (Whigs) who opposed him. But he's largely remembered today for his infamous Indian Removal Act, which forced tens of thousands of Native Americans off their lands (via History). Jackson was known to have a quick temper and fiery disposition. He was quick to settle disputes or perceived injustices with a duel (via White House).

According to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, scholars believe Jackson may have suffered from mercury and lead poisoning thanks to two common treatments during that time period: calomel (mercurous chloride) and sugar of lead (lead acetate). His propensity for dueling also left him with lead bullets in his left lung and left shoulder. He had many symptoms of heavy metal toxicity, including "excessive salivation, rapid tooth loss, colic, diarrhea, pallor, hand tremor, irritability, paranoia, violent mood swings, and probable chronic renal failure." Hair samples from the president revealed that he did indeed have high levels of mercury and lead in his body.

Did Abraham Lincoln have Marfan syndrome?

Abraham Lincoln was at the helm of American government from 1861 until his assassination on April 14, 1865. His presidency was dominated by the Civil War, which ended only days before he was fatally shot. His Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in rebelling Confederate states, and Gettysburg Address, which inspired a war-weary Union to keep fighting, were both delivered in 1863 and remain part of Lincoln's legacy to this day (via White House).

Lincoln was known for his unusual appearance as much as for his rousing rhetoric and truthfulness. Honest Abe even poked fun at his looks, famously saying, "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" (via Goodreads) Many medical historians now believe that Lincoln's distinctive appearance — tall and extremely lanky, with a long thin face and enormous hands and feet — may have been due to a condition known as Marfan syndrome.

As a 2017 article published in Clinical Correlations explained, Marfan syndrome is a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects two to three people per 10,000. It can impact multiple body systems, but particularly affects the skeleton, eyes, and cardiovascular system. Lincoln's mother had many of the same unique physical characteristics, which adds credibility to the claim that Lincoln had this rare genetic condition.

Chester A. Arthur had kidney failure

While less remembered than other presidents, Chester A. Arthur nevertheless accomplished a lot during his short time in the White House, which began in 1881 when President James Garfield was assassinated months after taking office and Vice President Arthur became commander in chief. Arthur spearheaded changes in immigration and trade policy and sought to institute civil service reform (via White House).

Arthur was ill for most of his three-and-a-half-year term, plagued by fatigue, weight loss, and low appetite among other symptoms. According to a 2017 paper published in The Surgery Journal, he suffered from Bright's disease, an inflammatory condition that affects the blood vessels of the kidneys and causes protein to be lost through urination. Although initially suspected to have malaria (which he may have also had), doctors diagnosed him with Bright's disease in 1882. Since the condition was considered fatal at the time, Arthur and his doctors tried to keep the diagnosis secret, although the information eventually leaked to the press.

It's unclear what caused his Bright's disease, but it may have been the result of a strep infection. Arthur died of a stroke less than two years after leaving office. The stroke was likely caused by high blood pressure due to kidney failure.

Grover Cleveland had a tumor removed from his mouth in secret

Grover Cleveland was the only president in American history to serve two non-consecutive terms: the first as the 22nd present from 1885 to 1889 and the second as the 24th president from 1893 to 1897. He was also the first Democrat to be elected after the Civil War. (At this time, the Democrats were the party with the greatest support in the Southern states, while Republicans were dominant in the North.) He often clashed with railroad tycoons and workers and his administration passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which attempted to regulate the booming rail industry, according to the White House.

A few months into his second term, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in the roof of his mouth. He didn't want the public to perceive him as weak or on death's door, as this could have sent the country deeper into the economic depression it was already experiencing. So he borrowed a friend's yacht for a four-day "fishing trip" during which surgeons removed the tumor, along with some of his teeth and upper jawbone. Since the doctors removed the tumor through his mouth and Cleveland had a big, bushy mustache, the president was able to hide any evidence of the surgery. The world didn't find out about the cancer or secret surgery until a whopping 24 years after the operation, when one of the doctors came forward to tell the incredible tale (via NPR).

William Howard Taft had sleep apnea and hypertension

Elected the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft served from 1909 to 1913. Although he was a member of the Republican Party, progressives initially thought he'd be a good choice to help further their cause. Despite a number of important reforms, such as passage of a federal income tax and legislation that led to the direct election of senators, progressives soon turned against Taft for not being progressive enough. After leaving office, Taft served as the Chief Justice of the United States from 1921 to 1930 (via White House).

Many political cartoons of the time openly mocked the president's large size; Taft was the heaviest president in U.S. history. During his time in the White House, the six-foot-tall Taft weighed between 320 and 340 pounds, giving him a BMI of 46. He also had high blood pressure and obstructive sleep apnea. His sleep apnea led to excessive daytime sleepiness and even periods of cognitive impairment. When he left office, he went on a strict diet and got down to 270 pounds, which he was able to maintain for the rest of his life. His sleep apnea disappeared and his blood pressure improved (via The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Woodrow Wilson had a stroke while in office

Democrat Woodrow Wilson served as president from 1913 to 1921. His administration passed a number of progressive reforms, including a graduated income tax, a ban on child labor, and the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Although he tried to keep the United States out of World War I (1914–1918), in April 1917 he brought the nation into the fight in order to "make the world safe for democracy." After the war, Wilson urged Congress to approve the Versailles Treaty, which would have brought the United States into the newly formed League of Nations, an international peace organization, but Congress rejected the treaty (via White House).

Wilson had a long history of cerebrovascular disease and suffered at least four strokes before and during his presidency (1896, 1906, 1913, and 1919). His final stroke was massive and debilitating, but his wife and personal physician decided it would be best to not tell Wilson how severe his condition was. His doctor also refused to sign an official statement of disability, which prevented Vice President Thomas Marshall from stepping in under the rules of succession. The president's stroke was also kept a secret from the public. Some historians believe that, had it not been for the stroke taking him out of commission, Wilson may have been able to convince Congress to join the League of Nations (via the University of Arizona Health Sciences Library).

Warren G. Harding died in office of a heart attack

Warren G. Harding was the 29th president of the United States, serving from 1921 to 1923. He won his presidential bid by an unprecedented 60% of the vote, but his administration was rocked by a number of scandals. A staunch Republican, he rolled back many of the measures that had been put in place during World War I. He died in August 1923 in San Francisco of a heart attack, one of only a handful of presidents to die while in office (via White House).

Harding died as he lived: embroiled in scandal. Although records from the era make it clear that Harding did indeed die of a heart attack, his wife's refusal to allow an autopsy and her decision to have her husband embalmed only an hour after death led to numerous rumors about how Harding died. These ranged from stroke to intentional poisoning. The press quickly turned against the doctors who had treated him. One physician recalled: "We were belabored and attacked by newspapers antagonistic to Harding, and by cranks, quacks ... and many others. We were accused of starving the President to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives" (via the National Constitution Center).

Calvin Coolidge grappled with depression

When President Warren G. Harding died in office, Vice President Calvin Coolidge stepped in to finish out his term from 1923 to 1925 before winning the presidential election in his own right and serving from 1925 to 1929. His policy was largely one of "active inactivity" as he let the nation chug along during the prosperous Roaring '20s. He was famous for his taciturn nature, often sitting through interviews or parties saying only a handful of words (via White House).

As it turns out, Coolidge's "do nothing" attitude during his presidency likely had less to do with a personal political ideology and more to do with the sudden death of his 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr. In the summer of 1924, young Calvin developed a blister after playing tennis with no socks. The blister became infected and the infection spread rapidly, killing the teen in only five days.

Coolidge was no stranger to grief; his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 12 and his sister died several years later of appendicitis. After the death of his son, Coolidge exhibited all 10 signs and symptoms used to diagnose major depressive disorder today, including changes in appetite and sleeping habits, reluctance to speak, irritability, and an inability to make decisions. He was so incapacitated by his depression that he unofficially turned over his presidency to his cabinet, wife, and Congress (via The Atlantic).

Franklin D. Roosevelt downplayed his polio

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the longest-serving U.S. president, holding that office from 1933 until his death in 1945. Elected four times, Roosevelt steered the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. The sweeping policies and programs of his "New Deal" brought stability to the country and his careful maneuvering during World War II strengthened the United States' economic and geopolitical standing. He didn't live to see the end of the conflict, however. He died in April 1945 of a brain hemorrhage (via White House).

Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. The disease left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite several years of rigorous rehabilitation, Roosevelt remained a paraplegic the rest of his life. Fearing a negative reaction from the public, he kept his disability largely hidden. Rather than using a wheelchair (which, at the time, were large and difficult to maneuver), he put wheels on a dining chair that could easily be moved and didn't call as much attention to his paralysis.

He even devised a way of "walking" by swinging his legs while supporting himself with his arms and the assistance of a cane and other people. He asked that the press not photograph him "walking," maneuvering his chair, or being transferred from his car to his chair. The Secret Service even stepped in to prevent nosy reporters from snapping pictures of the president during such moments, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Dwight D. Eisenhower had Crohn's disease

After serving as commanding general of American troops in World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the 34th president of the United States, holding the office from 1953 to 1961. During his time in the White House, Eisenhower oversaw the United States' involvement in the Korean War and navigated the choppy waters of Cold War diplomacy. Domestically, he charted a middle course that allowed the nation to prosper (via White House). In his farewell address, he warned of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" as tensions with the Soviet Union continued to deteriorate, per History.

Throughout his life, Eisenhower had Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the digestive tract that can be extremely painful. Crohn's can cause GI symptoms such as abdominal pain and severe diarrhea, and damaged bowel tissue can make it difficult to absorb nutrients from food, leading to weight loss, fatigue, and nutritional deficiencies, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In 1956, Eisenhower had a portion of his small intestine removed because of a blockage caused by his Crohn's. He also had his gallbladder removed after he left office and had seven heart attacks over the course of his life (via WebMD).

John F. Kennedy had adrenal insufficiency and debilitating back pain

Young and charismatic, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy became the 38th president of the United States — the youngest person to ever hold the office. During his time in the White House, he fought for civil rights domestically and nuclear disarmament and human rights internationally. His term was cut tragically short when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas (via White House).

Kennedy had a condition known as Addison's disease or "adrenal insufficiency." For those with Addison's disease, the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys, don't produce enough of the hormones that help control electrolyte balance and the body's stress response. Kennedy took large amounts of corticosteroids to manage his disease, which caused premature osteoporosis and contributed to his other major chronic health issue: terrible back pain. Kennedy's back pain was so severe that he often couldn't bend over to tie his shoes. In addition to steroids, Kennedy was prescribed a cocktail of medications to treat his back pain and other ailments, including opiates, local anesthetics, tranquilizers, amphetamines, barbiturate sleeping pills, and thyroid hormones (via PBS).

Lyndon B. Johnson didn't hide his gallbladder surgery

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency in 1963 and then won election in his own right in 1965. Johnson's domestic priority was his "Great Society" plan, a sweeping collection of legislation and programs aimed at revitalizing the nation. Johnson wanted to address issues such as voting rights, education, Medicare reform, urban renewal, poverty, conservation, and crime prevention. His plans at home, however, soon became overshadowed by events abroad, as the United States became bogged down in the increasingly controversial and unpopular Vietnam War (via White House).

While in office, Johnson had his gallbladder removed. Gallbladder removal, also known as a cholecystectomy, is a common surgery usually performed to address gallstones and the complications they cause. The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that sits above the liver and stores bile, a substance that aids in the digestion of fats. When gallstones form, they can cause severe pain and inflammation and obstruct the bile ducts, explains the Mayo Clinic.

In 1965, Johnson had both his gallbladder and a kidney stone removed. While many past presidents had attempted to hide health problems or operations, Johnson was very open with the press. He met with them to reassure the nation he was doing well just a few days after the surgery. Twelve days post-op, he was even photographed showing off his healing incision (via the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons).

Did Ronald Reagan have Alzheimer's disease while in office?

Rising to prominence first as a Hollywood actor, Republican Ronald Reagan became the 40th president of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989. At home, his administration pushed legislation to stimulate economic growth, cut taxes and government spending, reduce inflation, and increase employment. In foreign affairs, Reagan took a "peace through strength" approach, increasing defense spending and taking a firm but diplomatic tack with the Soviet Union as the Cold War wound down (via White House).

In 1994, five years after leaving office, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, leading many to wonder if he'd had the condition while president. There were a number of times during his tenure that Reagan appeared confused, disoriented, and unable to recall important facts. These lapses led the press to question if Reagan was "going senile." Reagan's son also noted unusual changes in his father during his time in office. His doctors, however, unanimously agreed that he never displayed any signs of dementia while in office. It's important to note that the average life expectancy after an Alzheimer's diagnosis is eight to 10 years, and Reagan died in 2004, 10 years after his diagnosis. If he'd had the disease while in office, this would have made him "extraordinarily long-lived for an Alzheimer's patient," Snopes explained.