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Consequences of Ten Illnesses Experienced by Presidents

When discussing presidential illnesses, one cannot ignore the tragic case of William Henry Harrison. On a chilly morning in March 1841, Harrison, the oldest president at the time, delivered the longest inaugural address in American history without wearing warm clothing. Just one month later, he died from pneumonia. However, his brief tenure did not significantly impact the public or the presidency. Here are some more influential presidential ailments in chronological order.

10 George Washington: No Teeth? No Thanks

One of the most peculiar ailments on this list may have had a profound impact on one president’s time in office and the future norms of the presidency. Poor dental health can lead to numerous issues throughout the body. For instance, bacteria in the mouth can spread to other organs, causing infections. Gum disease has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory problems.

George Washington had terrible dental health. Before the invention of fluoride toothpaste, Washington lost his first tooth to decay at the age of 24. By the time he became president, he had only one tooth left. The pain caused by his dental problems likely affected his overall well-being, and this likely played a role in his decision to only serve two terms in office, setting a precedent for future presidents. Washington died from a severe throat infection, which was dangerously close to his toothless mouth. [1]

9 Alcohol Abuse: Two out of Three Ain’t Good

In the 1850s, two presidents struggled with alcohol abuse, which had a detrimental impact on their presidencies. Franklin Pierce is often ranked among the worst presidents in American history, with his administration marked by violence related to slavery and an overall lack of accomplishments. He famously stated after leaving office, “There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.” James Buchanan, Pierce’s successor, had a reputation for excessive alcohol consumption, reportedly going through ten gallons of whiskey per week. Their struggles with alcohol likely hindered their ability to provide the leadership needed during a tumultuous time in America’s history. [2]

8 Abraham Lincoln: Sad, But True

Abraham Lincoln battled with depression throughout his life. His childhood was marked by his mother’s chronic sadness and his father’s periods of isolation. Lincoln’s own struggles with depression may have influenced his ambition and desire for validation from others. Despite his depression, Lincoln became one of the greatest presidents in American history, striving for a hopeful future and working to earn the esteem of his fellow men. His dedication to ending slavery culminated in the passage of the 13th Amendment. [3]

7 Grover Cleveland’s Cancer: Don’t Panic

In 1893, Grover Cleveland faced two major challenges during his presidency. He had recently been reelected, but the country was in the midst of an economic depression. Additionally, Cleveland was secretly battling cancer. To avoid causing further panic and disruption, Cleveland had his cancer surgery conducted on a yacht. Despite the seriousness of his illness, Cleveland recovered enough to address Congress shortly after the surgery. The secrecy surrounding his surgery prompted the establishment of guidelines for the temporary transfer of presidential powers in the event of illness. [4]

6 William Howard Taft: Huge Problems

William Howard Taft’s weight posed significant health risks throughout his tenure as president. Despite his efforts to lose weight and improve his health, Taft remained obese, putting him at a higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other conditions. His weight also led to sleep apnea, causing him to frequently fall asleep during the day and affecting his decision-making abilities. Taft’s presidency ended after one term, as he finished third in the subsequent election. [5]

5 Woodrow Wilson’s Stroke: The First Female President?

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke while in office. His wife, Edith, took on a significant role in his presidency, acting as a protective guardian and displaying a level of control that led some historians to consider her America’s first female chief executive. When Wilson was bedridden and unable to fulfill his presidential duties, Edith made decisions on his behalf and even signed his name on documents. The lack of a formal process for transferring power to the vice president in the event of illness allowed Edith to assume such responsibilities. [6]

4 FDR’s Polio, Part 1: A Political Blessing

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with polio shaped his political career in unexpected ways. Although FDR downplayed his disability, his struggle with polio was well-known during his time in office. The experience of facing such a debilitating disease intensified his ambition and determination to succeed. Despite his physical limitations, Roosevelt became governor of New York and eventually president, using his skills to lead the country through challenging times. [7]

3 FDR’s Polio, Part 2: A Geopolitical Curse

By 1944, FDR’s health had significantly declined due to his decades-long battle with polio. This decline impacted his decision to not seek a fourth term and may have affected his ability to negotiate effectively during the Yalta Conference in 1945. It is argued that his compromised state led to concessions to the Soviet Union that had long-lasting geopolitical consequences, including the loss of Manchuria and the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula to Soviet influence. [8]

2 JFK’s Chronic Back Pain: A Deadly Tradeoff

John F. Kennedy suffered from chronic back pain, a condition which was likely worsened by his use of corticosteroids to treat his Addison’s Disease. This back pain led JFK to wear a back brace to alleviate his discomfort. The presence of this back brace during the assassination in Dallas allowed him to remain upright after being shot through the upper back and neck. While this kept him from collapsing or slumping forward, it ultimately led to his vulnerability to the fatal headshot that followed. [9]

1 Richard Nixon’s Paranoia: A President’s Self-destruction

Richard Nixon, despite his notable accomplishments as president, struggled with paranoia and an inferiority complex. Nixon’s psychiatrist believed he suffered from depression and paranoia disorder. This paranoia eventually led to the Watergate scandal, which resulted in Nixon’s resignation from office. His belief that everyone was out to get him and his desire to obtain an unnecessary edge ultimately destroyed his presidency. [10]

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