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Every Time A Sitting U.S. President Has Ever Hidden Their Illness From The Public

Historical Facts | October 8, 2020

(N. Currier/Wikimedia Commons)

No matter the era, the well-being of the U.S. president has global ramifications. If the commander-in-chief knows the state of their health has a direct effect on the state of the nation, is it okay to hide an illness from the public? That's a question at the forefront of today's political minds as speculation on the health of President Donald Trump grows exponentially following his diagnosis of COVID-19, but Trump wouldn't be the first president to put up a front of strength and vigor. In fact, many presidents hid their illnesses.

William Henry Harrison Might Have Had Typhoid Fever

With a presidential career spanning only 32 days, William Henry Harrison has an unfortunate political history. He had both the shortest term as president in the history of the United States and the longest inaugural address to date, and the latter directly contributed to the former. After droning on for almost two hours on a cold day without a coat or hat, he fell ill within the month and died of complications from pneumonia on April 5, 1841, but some historians believe that Harrison had also been suffering from typhoid fever since before he even took office, thanks to Washington, D.C.'s contaminated water supply. If that's really the case, then catching pneumonia only exacerbated his illness.

(Frederick Gutekunst/Wikimedia Commons)

Grover Cleveland's Cancer-Hiding Mustache

Mustaches are great for a lot of reasons, but for Grover Cleveland, it was the perfect disguise for a surgery scar on his upper lip. Mere months after he was elected to his second term in 1893, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. He had it removed aboard a yacht on the pretense of a four-day fishing trip, covered the scar with his mustache, and denied all rumors of surgery. He even went so far as to launch a smear campaign against the doctor who brought the news to the press.

(Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons)

Woodrow Wilson Doubled Down

In a series of events eerily similar to those of 2020, Woodrow Wilson contracted the Spanish flu in April 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference. At the time of his illness, members of Wilson's administration insisted that he was simply run down from traveling and the cold Paris rain, but that's not the worst of it. On September 25, 1919, Wilson had a stroke after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado and then another less than one month later. He and his wife hid his condition from everyone until after he left office in 1921.

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Warren G. Harding Was Constantly Sick

To those in his inner circle, it wasn't a matter of "if" Warren G. Harding would die in office but "when." By the time he was elected, he had been diagnosed with both neurasthenia, an illness that causes physical and mental exhaustion, and congestive heart disease. In office, he constantly complained of cramps, fever, shortness of breath, and indigestion, but the American people never knew about any of that. On the night of his death on August 2, 1923, it was announced that he passed from "a stroke of cerebral apoplexy," but it was most likely a heart attack. (Or was it?)

(Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library/Wikimedia Commons)

FDR's Heart And Wheels

Your image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt probably includes a wheelchair, but he would hate to know that. After his diagnosis in 1921, he did everything he could to hide his polio from the American people, but by the time of his election a decade later, it was plain to see that not all was well with the president. Still, he avoided using his wheelchair in public whenever possible.

Polio wasn't the only health problem he hid. In 1944, Roosevelt was told that he was suffering from heart failure and warned that if he accepted a fourth term, he'd likely die in office. Roosevelt ignored the advice of his doctor and died of a cerebral hemorrhage 82 days into his fourth term.

(National Archives and Records Service/Wikimedia Commons)

Eisenhower Hid A Massive Heart Attack

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected in 1952, he was already suffering from abdominal adhesions from an appendectomy he received in 1923, but it was his heart that did him. On a golf course one day in 1955, those surrounding him noted that he became unusually frustrated with his staffers and straight-up abusive to anyone who bothered him. Little did they know he was in the middle of a massive heart attack. It lasted for days, but his people in the White House dismissed it to the public as digestive issues caused by a rogue hamburgerLike Roosevelt, Eisenhower ignored his cardiologists' advice against a second term only to be diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 1956 and a stroke in 1957. Despite his rapidly failing health, he insisted on completing his final term.

(Dick DeMarisco, New York World Telegram & Sun/Wikimedia Commons)

Kennedy Was Sick All His Life

John F. Kennedy was unwell long before his untimely death, having spent most of his youth and college years in the hospital for severe intestinal ailments, infections, and what doctors briefly believed to be leukemia. After his election, he was in pain almost every hour of the day thanks to his horrendous back problems and suffering fatigue, nausea, and dizziness from Addison's disease, but whenever he was asked, he insisted that he was in "excellent shape."

(Michael Evans/Wikimedia Commons)

Reagan Very Nearly Died When He Was Shot

On March 30, 1981, President Reagan was shot and wounded by John Hinckley, Jr. in Washington, D.C. At the time of the assassination attempt, members of Reagan's inner circle claimed that the president walked into the hospital under his own power, but the truth is that he collapsed after walking about 20 feet. He was, in fact, millimeters from death, having lost about half his blood volume in one day, but Vice President George H. W. Bush told reporters that Reagan looked "robust" when they visited. He knew a thing or two about covering up health problems himself.

(National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Bush Sr. Was Diagnosed With Graves' Disease Just Before His Election

President Bush the First had a long list of illnesses by the time he completed his warm-up gig with Reagan and got himself elected. He had ulcers, lung trauma, and cysts from his time in the military, but the most mysterious was his diagnosis of Graves' disease in the run-up to the 1992 election because his wife, Barbara, had also been diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder a few years earlier. The illness latched onto the male Bush quick, inflicting him with an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath, but the Bush family kept it under wraps so the American people wouldn't think he could die in office. When word got out, that's pretty much what happened. The shift in public perception, that is. Bush lived a remarkably long life of 94 years, dying of vascular Parkinson's disease in 2018 only a few months after his beloved Barbara. Isn't that sweet?

Tags: American presidents | diseases | political campaigns

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.