An American president is an important person. And so is his health. Hence, when President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he and the country’s first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for Covid-19 (which has killed over 2,00,000 people in the United States alone), the rise in concerns about the president’s health and his ability to perform duty was natural. And behind those concerns lies an uncomfortable long history of presidents being dishonest, secretive and deceptive about their health. In some cases, the truth was hidden for many decades.
The secret surgery
In 1893, following a usual routine day at the White House, Grover Cleveland, the only American to have served two non-consecutive terms as president, boarded his friend’s yacht The Oneida and was not heard for the next five days. In the eyes of the public, the president was on a fishing trip.
However, the truth emerged some 24 years later when it appeared the president had actually been on the yacht for an oral surgery. Shortly after he took office for his second term in 1893, Cleveland had noticed a small bump on the roof of his mouth. In the coming month, the small bump had grown large and was diagnosed as a cancerous tumour by doctors.
“In the nineteenth century, no diagnosis was as feared as cancer. It was tantamount to a death sentence. The very word was not spoken in polite company. It was most commonly referred to as ‘the dread disease’,” Author Matthew Algeo writes in his book The President Is a Sick Man.
On the afternoon of June 23, along with the White House physician Robert O’ Reilly, his close friend Dan Lamont and Dr Joseph Lamont, Cleveland decided to have the tumour removed, but all without anyone knowing.
The surgery was carried out on a moving boat following which the president was taken to his summer home “to retreat” or rather recover. There he was fitted with a vulcanized-rubber prosthesis that would plug the hole in his mouth formed following the extraction of the cancerous tumour. This also helped him in regaining his normal speaking voice.
All this while, the press was informed that the president had suffered nothing “more than a toothache”. By the end of the month, the president, who survived another 15 years after his secret surgery, was back to the White House as if nothing had happened.
Cleveland had two reasons for keeping his cancer secret. One, he was by nature a private person and did not wish to become an object of any form of spectacle and secondly he was a staunch believer of the fact that the nation’s and its president’s health are inextricably linked. “If it came to be known he had the dread disease, he believed public confidence in the economy, already badly shaken, would be utterly shattered. Republican Wall Street, always suspicious of the Democratic president, would abandon him… and in the words of Dr Bryant (Cleveland’s personal physician) – the panic would become a rout,” Algeo writes.
The story, however, was put out in public by investigative journalist E J Edwards, who published a detailed account of the secret operation in his newspaper column, only to find himself discredited by the public and removed from the White House press access itself.
However, 24 years later, Edward’s story was proved to be correct after Dr W.W. Keen, who was part of the six-doctor team that had operated President Cleveland decided to publish the exact account of the day.
Recollecting this unusual episode of American presidential history, Keen in his article wrote: “The operation itself was as nothing compared with scores that both of us (referring to Doctor Bryant) had performed; but on it hung the life not only of a human being and an illustrious ruler but the destiny of a nation. It was by far the most responsible operation in which I ever took part,” he wrote.
A pandemic and ‘a secret president’
In 1919, the world was facing a similar health crisis as today–the Spanish flu. Similar to Trump being infected by Covid-19 today, the then president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was diagnosed with the flu soon after he arrived in Paris in April for peace talks to negotiate the end of the first World War.
Much like the pandemic, Wilson’s illness was also downplayed by people around him saying the president was rather “overworked” and blamed the city’s weather for his sickness. In reality, though, President Wilson was in a rather bad shape. His health had begun to deteriorate and on April 3 during a meeting, Wilson abruptly had to leave the room and summon the White House doctor, Cary T. Grayson, who discovered him in a very poor condition.
Recalling the incident, American historian John Milton Cooper, in a biography of Wilson, wrote: “He had made himself sit through most of the meeting in spite of intense pains in his back, stomach, and head, but he had given in to an uncontrollable coughing spell. Grayson found that the president was running a fever of 103 degrees, and he coughed violently throughout the night. Grayson avoided the word influenza until he issued a statement to the press two days later, yet it seems clear that this was what ailed Wilson.”
Even though Wilson recovered from the virus in a few days, his wife Edith ensured that information about the episode remains restricted to the president’s inner circle. However, six months after this episode, the first lady found herself standing on the very same spot after Wilson suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side and partially blind. Again, the tactic used by the president’s inner circle included “no details, no explanations”.
Shedding light on the first lady’s role, American biographer A Scott Berg, in his book titled Wilson, said for the coming days Edith took over and was in charge of everything coming towards the president. For her influence, she was also described as “the first female President of the United States”.
She did suggest for Vice President Thoman Marshall to take charge, but was discouraged by Wilson’s doctor who argued that it would do more harm to the president’s health since he had dedicated his life towards work. “For Mr Wilson to resign, he explained, would have a bad effect on the country, and a serious effect on our patient. In terms more political than medical, he noted that the President had staked his life on ratification of the Treaty. If he resigned, Dercum said, the greatest incentive to recovery is gone,” Berg wrote.
According to the White House head usher of the time, for the coming weeks, Wilson had to be lifted out of bed and placed on a chair each day. “He gradually seemed to kind of get used to his helpless condition. At times Mrs Wilson would read to him,” Irwin Hood Hoover wrote.
However, nobody other than his close aides were aware of the situation. It was not until February 1920 that a urologist from Johns Hopkins who had treated Wilson earlier told a reporter that the president had suffered a “cerebral thrombosis”.
President Wilson’s condition improved in the final year of the presidency. Despite his ill health, Wilson again asked to be nominated for president at the 1920 Democratic National Convention but was unable to garner support. Wilson left office in March 1921 and died three years later on February 3, 1924.
The young and sick
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States. As a 44-year-old, he was the youngest president of the country. However, he battled several health problems throughout his life that were mostly kept as a secret from the public.
Historians using archival records of White House physicians, letters, and oral histories have attempted to piece together Kennedy’s medical profile that paints a grim picture of a president who was plagued by a series of diseases since childhood. Study of his medical records indicates he suffered from ulcers, colitis and even the life-threatening Addison’s disease– something Kennedy had denied publicly.
There are also other notable examples of secrecy around the health of American presidents. President Lyndon B Johnson secretly underwent surgery for removal of a skin lesion on his hand in 1967. President Franklin D Roosevelt was diagnosed as suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac failure, hypertensive heart disease, and acute bronchitis. President Dwight D Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack in 1955 during a vacation. President William Henry Harrison had what was believed to be pneumonia caused by cold weather during his inauguration which resulted in his death just one month after taking office.
“After the diagnosis of his Addison’s disease in September 1947, he continued to struggle with medical concerns. Over the next six years, headaches, upper respiratory infections, stomachaches, urinary tract discomfort, and almost constant back pain plagued him,” wrote Historian Robert Dallek in his book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy.
“He consulted an ear, nose, and throat specialist about his headaches, took medication and applied heat fifteen minutes a day to ease his stomach troubles, consulted urologists about his bladder and prostate discomfort, had DOCA pellets implanted and took daily oral doses of cortisone to control his Addison’s disease, and struggled unsuccessfully to find relief from his back miseries,” Dallek added.
Contrary to his widely-perceived young and healthy image, President Kennedy also suffered from back problems for which he could never find a cure. On November 22, 1963, he was assassinated at the age of 46.
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