Ails of the Chiefs

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

We’ve all heard of playing sick, but it turns out that presidents like to “play well” instead.

The forty-three men who have held the office of chief executive have ranged in age from 42 to 77 while in office, middle to old age. Unsurprisingly, then, the presidents have had a number of medical issues while in office. More surprisingly, perhaps, a large number of those episodes were hidden from the public to avoid a loss in confidence in their leader -even though such a loss of confidence may at times have been justified. Here’s the lowdown on some of the top secret maladies of the presidents.


Grover Cleveland, during his second term in office, had a cancerous growth removed from his mouth in a surgical procedure done aboard a friend’s yacht, the Oneida. The growth was a “gelatinous mass” which was (in a rather unappetizing visual) referred to as a “cauliflower lesion.” It may have resulted from Cleveland’s heavy smoking -the president was known to enjoy his vices. He was a heavy smoker, drinker, and especially eater. At 280 pounds, Cleveland was the largest president ever except for the famously portly William H. Taft.

Cleveland took his doctors’ advice and arranged for the growth to be removed immediately. Meanwhile, the country was ailing financially, with the disagreement about whether to continue basing the value of U.S. currency on silver reaching a fever pitch. Cleveland worried that the appearance of his failing health would be enough for a contagious unease to spread around the country and per hep precipitate a financial panic even worse than the one already taking place. He called for a special session of Congress to convene in just over five weeks, when he expected to have recovered, to discuss the coinage issue. Then he traveled on the Oneida on the pretense of taking a vacation.

The surgeons cleared the saloon of the Oneida and settled Cleveland into a deck chair. They began administering nitrous oxide an ether. The ether dose had to be alarmingly high to knock Cleveland out due to his high tolerance for alcohol that also made him resistant to the effects of ether. The surgeons removed two teeth and a huge portion of the upper left jawbone. A few weeks later a second operation was conducted to remove more tissue that looked suspicious and to fir the president with an artificial portion of jaw made of vulcanized rubber. Both operations were a complete success. After the implantation of the rubber jaw, Cleveland’s appearance was indistinguishable from what it had been before the operation, and his speech was unaffected.

The trouble now was keeping it quiet. Rumors leaked out that Cleveland was ill. The president’s advisors fought back by blatantly lying, saying he was a little under the weather with rheumatism and a toothache, but would recover soon. Their story held fast. The truth only came out 24 years later, when his surgeon published his account of the episode in the Saturday Evening Post.


President Calvin Coolidge is remembered today as one of the more leisurely presidents in history. He famously slept between ten and eleven hours a day, which commonly included a two-hour nap in the afternoon. He is also remembered for being laconic, as in the anecdote about a White House guest who told Coolidge she made a bet that she could get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” said Coolidge.

His reputation while governor of Massachusetts, though, was quite the opposite of his as president. He regularly rose before 7AM and worked throughout the day, evening having meetings after dinner. These days, with the ability to look back with greater medical knowledge, it appears that Coolidge’s sudden new idleness was due to clinical depression, instigated by the tragic death of his son.

Calvin and Calvin Junior faced off in a tennis match one summer day in 1924 on the White House grounds. Calvin Junior played wearing sneakers but wore no socks and developed a blister on his foot. He ignored the injury, which them became seriously infected. Doctors were unable to save him, and Calvin Junior died of blood poisoning.

Coolidge fell into a deep funk, losing interest in politics and his presidential duties. He began to be obsessed with his own health and would take his pulse while sitting at his desk, looking for symptoms of heart disease. He became more compliant with people, trying to hide what he saw as intolerable personal faults, even though these faults were invisible to others, or at least not intolerable. In short he met all the textbook criteria for a major depressive episode. Coolidge died five years after leaving office, of what his doctors called, ironically, a “silent coronary.”


In spite of his image as a young and vigorous leader, John F. Kennedy may have been the nation’s sickliest president. His troubles started early in life, when he suffered from almost every childhood illness imaginable- plus a few more: scarlet fever, bronchitis, chicken pox, ear infections, German measles, measles, mumps, whooping cough, asthma, diphtheria, allergies, hives, an irritable colon, a weak stomach, and many bouts with colds and flu. He was in and out of the hospital throughout his life with one problem or another. In fact his medical condition twice became so grave that he received the last rites from the Roman Catholic Church. After graduating from college, Kennedy was only allowed to serve in the Navy when his father’s influence helped him “pass” his physical.

In addition to his childhood ailments, Kennedy suffered from a bad back for most of his life. Although the source of the problem was probably congenital, Kennedy seriously aggravated it when he tried out for the football team at Harvard University. The injury was compounded, when, while in the navy during World War II, Kennedy’s PT boat was rammed by a Japanese vessel and sunk. The jolt of the initial collision and the immense strain from rescuing his shipmates ruptured a spinal disc; in the years that followed the war, Kennedy underwent two surgeries to help ease the pain. He even took to wearing a back brace after he became president.

As if a bad back weren’t problem enough, another major health problem that went undiagnosed for most of Kennedy’s life was Addison’s is ease, an autoimmune disorder that causes weight loss, muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, low blood pressure, and nausea. The Kennedys did their best to keep the illness a secret, especially during JFK’s run for the White House.

During his campaign for the presidency in 1960, direct questions about whether Kennedy had Addison’s were posed on both sides of the party divide. Republican congressman Walter Judd found a description of a case in a journal called Archives of Surgery that gave names of doctors and dates of surgery, but not the name of the patient. There was little doubt, though, that the patient in the article was Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson also made a public statement that Kennedy had Addison’s when he and Kennedy were both candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination. The Kennedy camp’s response to these allegations? Just to deny them. A statement issued by Robert Kennedy stated unequivocally, giving details from Kennedy’s doctors, that John was not sick.

With all these medical problems, Kennedy submitted to a battery of injections and swallowed a handful of pills every day. To deal with pain, he received injection from a doctor named Max Jacobson, a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood, who one of his nurses described as “absolutely a quack.” Jacobson actually did turn out to be a quack and lost his license in 1975 for manufacturing “adulterated drugs consisting in whole or in part of filthy, putrid, and/or decomposed substances.” Kennedy insisted about his injections from Jacobson, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.” It is awfully tough to argue with success.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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