The health of US Presidents is a well-kept secret, especially while they’re in office. The public is on a need-to-know basis, and, generally speaking, the government doesn't think the public needs to know at all – especially when it comes to presidents' illnesses. From George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama, presidents have suffered from various ailments before, during, and after holding their positions. Considering how unwell some of these guys were, it's amazing they accomplished anything at all during their first 100 days in office.
Some presidents were pretty healthy from a young age; others were sickly during their whole lives, and others were plagued with maladies on and off – no actual instances of plague, though, luckily. However, some of these presidential ailments might just surprise you.
The Short List: Malaria, diphtheria, pneumonia, dysentery, tonsillitis, smallpox, carbuncles, far-sightedness, hearing loss, throat infection, depression, loss of teeth
In addition to his famously problematic oral health, George Washington suffered from several illnesses throughout his life. At the age of 17, he contracted malaria and continued to suffer bouts of it until his death. He was afflicted with diphtheria, pneumonia, dysentery, and tonsillitis, mostly when he was in the military. Washington contracted smallpox while in Barbados at the age of 19, and this may account for his purported sterility. Tuberculosis or influenza may have also caused him to be infertile, although there are few details of if and when he had these afflictions. Washington suffered carbuncles, far-sightedness, and was losing his hearing during the late 1780s. It’s unclear exactly what Washington died from, but speculation is that he had a bacterial infection of his epiglottis that led to suffocation. He may have also had pneumonia.
Age: Died at 67 (1732-1799)
Birthplace: Virginia, United States of America
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The Short List: Respiratory infections, smallpox, indigestion, dyspepsia, depression, somatization, substance abuse, rheumatism
While small in stature, John Adams was in relatively good health as a boy. However, he suffered from a severe respiratory infection during his first year at Harvard, and, upon receiving the smallpox vaccine in 1764, he came down with symptoms of the disease. He complained of stomach upset, acid reflux, and depression often, and, during his presidency, he experienced somatization – AKA physical symptoms associated with psychological issues – during periods of extreme stress. During one particular incident, he was comatose for five days. He also developed a tremor, which may have been stress related too. Adams enjoyed alcohol, chewing tobacco, and smoking. He lost his hair and his teeth, and the lack of the latter caused a mild speech impediment. He had rheumatism late in life, and, to the best of any estimation, he died of old age (at 90!) in 1826.
Age: Died at 91 (1735-1826)
Birthplace: Eastern United States, Braintree, New England, Norfolk County, United States of America, + more
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The Short List: Dysentery, depression, back injury, broken wrists, enlarged prostate, rheumatism, skin sores, hearing loss, indigestion, psychological condition
Thomas Jefferson experienced severe headaches at various points during his life, some of which lasted for weeks at a time. He suffered from dysentery, depression, and a debilitating back injury during his pre-presidential days, as well as a severe wrist injury that never fully healed. While president, Jefferson developed a severe jaw infection, but he always claimed that he never lost any of his teeth to age. Late in life, he may have had an enlarged prostate. He was rheumatic, had boils, wore glasses, lost much of his hearing, and once suffered from what was called life-threatening constipation. His death, however, was mostly likely the result of diarrhea. Due to his intellect and eccentricities, there has been speculation that he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome or some other form of autism.
Age: Died at 83 (1743-1826)
Birthplace: Contiguous United States, United States of America, United States, with Territories, Albemarle County, + more
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The Short List: Speech impediment, arthritis, inflamed gallbladder, epilepsy, frostbite
Considered ‘frail’ throughout his life, James Madison avoided contracting any serious illnesses simply by avoiding travel to locations where disease was common. During his 30s, Madison complained of a speech impediment that prevented him from delivering public addresses. He experienced frostbite on his nose during the 1790s, and, once he reached middle age, he was afflicted with arthritis and an inflammation of his gallbladder. Madison may have had a form of epilepsy, as sources indicate that he suffered from attacks that resembled seizures. There is some speculation that these were psychologically caused. As he aged, Madison’s skin took on a yellow hue; he became puffy around his eyes; he lost his hearing and his sight; and he became feeble-minded before dying of old age.
Age: Died at 85 (1751-1836)
Birthplace: Port Conway, Contiguous United States, United States of America, United States, with Territories, + more
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