Presidents Who Were Sick In The Oval Office
By Sophia Maddox | September 25, 2023
Welcome to a fascinating journey through the annals of American history, where we delve into the lives of the presidents of the United States who faced significant health challenges while in office. From the nation's founding with George Washington to the modern era encompassing Donald Trump and Joe Biden, this slideshow gallery offers a captivating exploration of how health and medical practices have evolved over the centuries in the highest office of the land. We invite history enthusiasts and curious minds alike to join us on this compelling journey as we uncover the remarkable stories, resilience, and medical advances that have shaped the presidency. Read on to gain insight into the extraordinary lives of these leaders, their battles with illness, and the enduring impact they left on the nation.
In 2022, President Joe Biden faced a significant health challenge while in office. Despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and having received two booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, President Biden tested positive for the virus for the second time. In response, he promptly announced his diagnosis and tweeted that he was asymptomatic but would isolate "for the safety of everyone around me." This incident highlighted the ongoing and unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, even for individuals who had taken multiple precautions and received vaccinations. President Biden's transparency about his health and commitment to safety underscored the importance of continued vigilance and adherence to public health guidelines in managing the pandemic.
On October 2, 2020, during his tenure as the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The diagnosis came shortly after it was confirmed that the President's adviser, Hope Hicks, had contracted the virus. Following his diagnoses the president tweeted:
Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!
Both President Trump and the First Lady experienced what were described as "mild symptoms" in the hours following their positive tests, according to Mark Meadows, the President's Chief of Staff. This announcement had significant implications both nationally and internationally, as it underscored the pervasive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vulnerability of even the highest office in the land to the virus.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, the charismatic 35th President of the United States, concealed a life-threatening health condition while projecting an image of youth and vitality to the American public. Despite his short term in office, Kennedy grappled with Addison's disease, an incurable disorder affecting the adrenal glands, a fact he kept hidden from the public. Alongside this debilitating condition, he endured chronic back pain and anxiety, leading to a dependence on a mixture of painkillers, stimulants, and anti-anxiety medications.
Although portrayed as the epitome of health, Kennedy's struggle with Addison's disease and hypothyroidism remained largely undisclosed. This tension between his public persona and private health challenges became apparent when he collapsed twice in public due to the effects of his illness, underscoring the resilience and determination he exhibited throughout his presidency despite his concealed medical battles.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, endured a staggering array of both emotional and physical ailments during his time in office. When he assumed the presidency at the age of 62, his frail appearance was striking; he had recently lost his beloved wife to a heart attack, adding to his emotional burden. On top of these personal losses, Jackson grappled with numerous physical afflictions that further tested his resilience. His health struggles included rotting teeth, persistent chronic headaches, deteriorating eyesight, recurrent bleeding in his lungs, an internal infection, and lingering pain from two separate bullet wounds sustained in duels. Despite these daunting health challenges, Jackson maintained a determined and often fierce leadership style during his presidency, earning him a place among the most memorable figures in American history.
Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, faced significant health challenges during his time in office. Throughout his life, he struggled with obesity, gout, and nephritis, a kidney inflammation. However, the most notable health event of his presidency occurred just months after he began his second term in 1893 when he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. Fearing the potential impact of his illness on the nation and the economy, Cleveland orchestrated a secretive and audacious plan.
He announced a four-day fishing trip aboard a friend's yacht, which served as a cover for a groundbreaking and clandestine surgery. In just an hour and a half aboard the yacht, a team of surgeons removed the tumor, as well as several of the president's teeth and a significant portion of his upper left jawbone. Cleveland concealed the surgery remarkably well, relying on his signature mustache to hide any visible evidence. Although news of the surgery did leak in the months following the operation, Cleveland vehemently denied it and discredited the doctor who had revealed it publicly. It was only 24 years after the surgery, following Cleveland's passing, that another surgeon finally corroborated the astonishing story.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, faced significant health challenges during his time in office. At the young age of 39, Roosevelt was struck by a devastating attack of polio, which left him with complete paralysis in both his legs. This life-altering event did not deter him but rather motivated him to fund extensive polio research, which ultimately led to the development of the polio vaccine, a major medical breakthrough. However, another health issue plagued Roosevelt during his fourth term as president.
In 1944, he began displaying symptoms of anorexia and experienced considerable weight loss. Tragically, in 1945, he suffered a severe headache, which was diagnosed as a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Roosevelt passed away shortly thereafter, leaving behind a legacy of leadership and resilience, despite his enduring struggle with physical health throughout his presidency.
Woodrow Wilson's time in office as the 28th President of the United States was overshadowed by a series of debilitating health issues. In addition to grappling with hypertension, chronic headaches, and double vision, Wilson suffered a succession of strokes that severely compromised his physical and cognitive capabilities. Initially, these strokes affected his right hand, rendering him unable to write in his customary manner for an entire year. However, more debilitating strokes followed, leaving him blind in his left eye and causing paralysis on his left side, which confined him to a wheelchair.
Remarkably, Wilson chose to conceal the extent of his paralysis from the public, keeping it a closely guarded secret. It was only when this disability was uncovered that it prompted discussions around presidential succession in cases of incapacitation. Ultimately, this revelation played a pivotal role in the development and ratification of the 25th Amendment, which clarified the process for transferring presidential powers to the vice president in the event of a president's death, resignation, or disability.
Andrew Johnson, who served as Abraham Lincoln's vice president and succeeded him after Lincoln's assassination, faced notable health challenges during his time in office. A few months prior to Lincoln's second inauguration, Johnson fell seriously ill with typhoid fever, and his condition remained precarious on the day of the ceremony.
Struggling to alleviate his discomfort, Johnson resorted to taking several shots of whiskey, inadvertently causing a drunken scene that would later contribute to his reputation as a drinker, despite not being one. During his presidency, Johnson also grappled with chronic kidney stones, which likely added to his health woes. Ultimately, he passed away in 1875, succumbing to a stroke.
Warren G. Harding's presidency was marred by a complex and often troubling relationship between his mental and physical health. Throughout his life, he grappled with a range of mental disorders, which significantly impacted his well-being. Between 1889 and 1891, Harding sought treatment and spent time in a sanitarium to recuperate from severe fatigue and nervous illnesses. The strain of his mental health struggles had profound physical repercussions, leading to substantial weight gain, chronic insomnia, and unrelenting exhaustion. These ailments ultimately took a toll on his heart, leading to the development of heart failure. Sadly, Warren Harding's presidency came to an abrupt end when he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly after a game of golf in 1923, leaving a legacy of personal challenges that complicated his time in office.
William Howard Taft's presidency was marked by the profound impact of his struggle with obesity on his health. At one point, he tipped the scales at over 300 pounds, making him one of the heaviest presidents in U.S. history. Taft's weight fluctuated significantly throughout his life, as he embarked on aggressive dieting efforts that resulted in a remarkable loss of nearly 100 pounds.
However, his continuous battles with obesity took a toll on his well-being, leading to the development of sleep apnea, which disrupted his sleep patterns and left him fatigued during the day, sometimes causing him to unintentionally doze off during crucial political meetings. Additionally, his excess weight contributed to high blood pressure and heart problems, further complicating his health.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, faced a series of significant health challenges during his two terms in office. His presidency was marked by three major medical crises. In 1955, he experienced a heart attack, a pivotal moment when he instructed his press secretary to inform the public about his condition, demonstrating his commitment to transparency. Just six months before the 1956 election, Eisenhower was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the intestines, and underwent surgery to address it. His health struggles were not over, as one year later, he had a mild stroke. Despite this setback, Eisenhower's determination and medical care enabled him to overcome the stroke and continue his duties as President.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, grappled with a series of health challenges during his time in office. Despite being the oldest man to seek the presidency and concerns raised by some about his medical fitness for the position, Reagan faced numerous health issues throughout his presidency. He experienced urinary tract infections (UTIs), underwent procedures to remove prostate stones, and battled temporomandibular joint disease (TMJ) and arthritis.
In 1987, he underwent surgeries for both prostate and skin cancers, demonstrating his resilience in the face of these medical hurdles. Additionally, Reagan lived with Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurological condition that would later become a significant part of his legacy. During his presidency, he also faced a life-threatening event when he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981. Miraculously, despite being 70 years old at the time, Reagan walked unassisted to the emergency room and made a full recovery from the assassination attempt.
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, confronted numerous health challenges over the course of his life. His early brush with mortality came as a teenager when he nearly succumbed to a staph infection, a harrowing experience that undoubtedly shaped his resilience.
As a naval aviator during World War II, Bush was exposed to head and lung trauma, adding to the physical toll on his body. Throughout his lifetime, he contended with a range of health issues, including bleeding ulcers, arthritis, and various cysts. Furthermore, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder, attributed to hyperthyroidism. Remarkably, like his wife Barbara and even their family dog, he grappled with Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder that underscored the enduring health challenges he faced.
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison's brief presidency, the shortest in U.S. history, was marked by a tragic and ultimately fatal illness. Just 32 days after taking office, Harrison fell seriously ill from what was initially diagnosed as pneumonia. The 68-year-old former military leader, known for his role in the Battle of Tippecanoe, had made history with his inauguration address, the longest ever at 8,445 words, delivered on a cold and windy day without wearing a hat or coat. This event, combined with his subsequent illness, gave rise to the enduring myth that Harrison's lengthy speech directly led to his death. However, some modern scholars have suggested that he might have succumbed to typhoid fever, likely contracted from Washington D.C.'s contaminated water supply. Regardless of the exact cause, Harrison's presidency was tragically cut short when he passed away on April 4, 1841, leaving a legacy as the first U.S. president to die in office.
James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, faced a harrowing and ultimately fatal health ordeal during his time in office. In July 1881, Garfield fell victim to an assassination attempt when Charles Guiteau, a mentally ill lawyer and writer, shot him twice—once with a grazing shot and a second that lodged in his abdomen. Remarkably, Garfield remained awake and alert after the shooting and was rushed into medical care. However, the medical treatment he received, particularly under the guidance of Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, would prove to be tragically flawed.
In their attempts to locate and remove the remaining bullet, Garfield's physicians engaged in practices that were common at the time but would be considered highly unsanitary today, including probing the wound with unwashed fingers. Weeks of exhaustive efforts followed, including the use of Alexander Graham Bell's newly invented metal detector and exploratory surgery that further exacerbated the president's condition. Garfield endured immense suffering, living in constant pain, before finally succumbing to a massive infection on September 19, months after the assassination attempt. His tragic ordeal underscored the critical importance of proper medical care and hygiene, particularly during a time when germ theory was not widely accepted.
George Washington, the inaugural President of the United States, faced formidable health challenges during his time in office. Just two months into his first term, he was confronted with a serious illness—a tumor that necessitated six weeks of rest. This health setback was but one of many ailments that Washington endured throughout his lifetime. In addition to the tumor, he battled influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, and even endured a painful boil described as "the size of two fists."
Washington's ability to lead the fledgling nation despite these physical adversities underscores his enduring resilience and unwavering commitment to his role as the first President of the United States. His leadership during this pivotal era in American history is a testament to his strength of character and dedication to the young republic.
Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, faced a presidency marked by profound personal tragedy and recurring health challenges. His term began in mourning, as shortly after his election, a tragic train accident on January 6, 1853, claimed the life of his 11-year-old son, Benjamin, a heartbreaking event that deeply affected both Franklin and his wife, Jane. Their grief cast a shadow over Pierce's presidency, likely impacting his performance as the nation's leader. Additionally, Pierce battled recurrent bouts of illness during his time in office. He experienced chills and fever, which were most likely malaria, afflicting him in the summer of 1854, fall of 1856, and possibly intermittently until his death.
Pierce could have contracted the disease during his earlier military service in Mexico. In the summer of 1853, he suffered from a severe respiratory infection while traveling, leading to pleuritic pain and exhaustion. Friends observed that he appeared "broken and wretched," suggesting that he may have turned to excessive alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism. Pierce's presidency was marked by both personal tragedy and ongoing health struggles, highlighting the complex intersection of personal life and public service.
Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States, grappled with a severe and mysterious illness during his time in office. On July 4, 1850, while attending holiday celebrations at the under-construction Washington Monument, Taylor indulged in a feast of cherries and iced milk. Shortly thereafter, he fell seriously ill with a digestive ailment that initially resembled acute gastroenteritis. Although his condition appeared mild initially, Taylor's health rapidly deteriorated over the following days.
His Army physician, Alexander S. Wotherspoon, diagnosed the illness as "cholera morbus," a term used in the mid-nineteenth century to describe a range of intestinal ailments. However, this diagnosis did not relate to the more severe Asiatic cholera that was prevalent in Washington, D.C., at the time. The exact source and nature of Taylor's illness have been the subject of historical speculation, but it's known that several members of his cabinet also fell ill with similar symptoms. Regardless of the precise cause, Taylor's health crisis proved fatal, leading to his untimely death during his presidency.
Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, faced various health challenges during his political career, including his time in office. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments related to his health occurred during his first presidential campaign in 1960 when he appeared ill compared to his opponent, John F. Kennedy, during their televised debate. Nixon was suffering from a staphylococcal infection and had a sore knee on that day, which contributed to his less-than-optimal appearance.
As president, Nixon had a habit of consuming alcohol, and these behaviors became more pronounced as his presidency was marred by scandals and controversy. His heavy drinking coincided with increasing paranoia and irritability. Nixon also grappled with insomnia, for which he took sleeping pills, and occasionally exhibited excessive eye-blinking. In 1974, he faced a health scare when he developed a blood clot and pulmonary embolism, requiring surgery. This episode may have been related to or a recurrence of an earlier bout with phlebitis in 1965.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, endured a series of physical and emotional health challenges during his time in office. While in the presidency, Lincoln faced several health setbacks, including a bout of food poisoning in 1861, severe depression following the death of his son in 1862, and potential smallpox in 1863. Additionally, there were indications of cancer as early as 1860.
His appearance, characterized by asymmetrical facial features and other symptoms, has led some to speculate about the possibility of MEN2B (multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B) syndrome. Lincoln's health also reflected the natural aging process, with a receding hairline and farsightedness as he grew older. Tragically, his presidency was cut short when he was shot in the head on April 14, 1865, during a visit to Ford's Theatre. The bullet entered behind his left ear and lodged behind his right eye, leading to his passing the following day. Lincoln's resilience and determination in the face of these challenges have cemented his legacy as one of America's greatest leaders.
Chester A. Arthur
Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, confronted a range of significant health challenges during his presidency. Among these ailments, one of the most notable was Bright's disease, also known as nephritis, which impacted the development of his kidney cells. Arthur's health issues, characterized by fatigue, irritability, and overall illness, began in 1882, contributing to what some contemporaries described as "laziness."
This condition eventually led to high blood pressure, swelling, and kidney failure. His health struggles extended to other areas as well, including malaria, indigestion, and heart disease in 1883, further compounding his physical decline. Ultimately, Chester A. Arthur passed away in 1886 due to kidney failure and a cerebral hemorrhage, both of which were associated with Bright's Disease.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson's time in office as the 36th President of the United States was marked by significant health concerns, particularly related to heart disease. Despite growing up in impoverished circumstances with relatively good health, Johnson's life took a turn when he experienced his first heart attack in his 40s. Following the Kennedy assassination, he encountered angina while in the emergency room with the presidential entourage, emphasizing the stresses of the presidency.
In 1965, he underwent gall bladder removal surgery, which he often showcased by proudly displaying the scar. Johnson's struggle with imbibing was emblematic of his complex relationship with his health; he quit after his heart attack but resumed the habit after leaving political office. His medical challenges underscored the toll that the presidency can take on one's well-being, especially in a high-stress role like his.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, contended with a series of health challenges both before and during his presidency. He grappled with chronic migraines that sometimes lasted for extended periods and suffered from ailments such as dysentery and depression throughout his life. His pre-presidential years were marked by a debilitating back injury and a severe wrist injury that left lasting effects.
During his time in office, Jefferson encountered a severe jaw infection, a particularly painful condition. Remarkably, he adamantly maintained that he had not lost any of his teeth to the effects of aging, despite the various medical issues he endured.
William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, faced a tragic and untimely end to his presidency when he was assassinated on September 6, 1901, during a public event at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley, who had been re-elected for a second term in 1900, had a penchant for engaging with the public and often resisted security measures. Despite concerns raised by his secretary, George B. Cortelyou, about the possibility of an assassination attempt during a visit to the Temple of Music, McKinley insisted on maintaining it in his schedule.
It was there that Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who saw McKinley as a symbol of oppression, shot the president twice as he reached to shake Czolgosz's hand in a reception line. Although one bullet grazed McKinley, the other entered his abdomen and was never recovered. Initially, McKinley showed signs of recovery, but his condition deteriorated as his wounds became gangrenous. Tragically, he passed away on September 14, 1901, marking the end of his presidency and the beginning of Theodore Roosevelt's tenure as the 26th President of the United States. McKinley's assassination led to significant changes in presidential security, with the United States Congress officially assigning the Secret Service the responsibility of protecting the president in the aftermath of this tragic event.
James K. Polk
James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, tragically succumbed to illness shortly after leaving office. He passed away on June 15, 1849, less than four months after his presidential term came to an end, in Nashville, Tennessee. Polk's death was attributed to cholera, a highly contagious and deadly disease.
Many scholars believe that Polk's relentless work ethic and the immense stress and demands of his presidency took a severe toll on his health, effectively working him to exhaustion. His four years in office were marked by ambitious initiatives and significant accomplishments, but they left him physically and mentally drained, contributing to his rapid decline in health after leaving the White House. Polk's untimely death serves as a poignant reminder of the immense pressures and sacrifices that often accompany the highest office in the land.
Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, faced a series of health issues during and after his time in office. In 1994, he dealt with rectal bleeding and a torn knee ligament. Throughout the early 1990s, Clinton struggled with high cholesterol and fluctuating weight, at times considered overweight. While serving as president, he grappled with allergies that affected his voice, had a cyst and pre-cancerous lesion removed from his face in 1995 and 1996, respectively, and suffered an ankle injury in 1997.
In 2001, Clinton underwent surgery to remove carcinoma from his back. However, one of the most significant health events during his post-presidential years occurred in 2004 when he underwent a quadruple coronary bypass due to coronary artery disease after experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. A follow-up operation in 2005 involved removing part of his lung that had become irritated during the bypass.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States, faced both physical challenges and significant responsibilities during his life. As a child, Hayes was described as "delicate," hinting at potential health concerns. During his service in the Civil War, Hayes experienced numerous injuries, including a wounded knee and ankle, as well as three separate bullet wounds, with the last injury leading to rumors of his demise.
As president, Hayes took a rather unusual step by banning alcohol and all other substances from the White House, reflecting his personal commitment to temperance. Surprisingly, he is only known to have suffered from one bout of poison ivy while in office. Despite these challenges, Hayes completed his term and retired from politics. He passed away in 1893, a decade after leaving the presidency, due to a heart attack, leaving behind a legacy that included his efforts to address the contentious issues of his era, such as the aftermath of the Civil War and civil service reform.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, grappled with personal and health challenges during his time in office and beyond. One of his most notable health issues was his inclination toward sleep, which might have been influenced by the deep depression he experienced following the tragic death of his son in 1924 due to sepsis.
Coolidge's penchant for rest became a defining characteristic of his presidency, earning him the nickname "Silent Cal." After retiring from politics, Coolidge's life took a somber turn when he passed away in 1933 due to a sudden blood clot. His legacy is marked not only by his leadership during the Roaring Twenties but also by his ability to navigate personal hardships and health concerns with characteristic stoicism.
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, confronted a series of health issues during and after his presidency. While in office, Truman suffered from a condition referred to as 'cardiac asthma,' which was likely pulmonary edema, a condition characterized by fluid accumulation in the lungs. He sought relief from stress by retreating on at least one occasion and was hospitalized for intestinal flu during his presidency.
After leaving office, Truman underwent gall bladder surgery in 1954, during which he experienced a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. Subsequently, he had a hernia operation in 1963. As he continued to age, Truman faced additional health challenges, including vertigo and arthritis. Ultimately, at the age of 83, he fell and broke two ribs. His health steadily declined, leading to his passing in 1972 due to lung congestion, possibly stemming from pneumonia, along with heart failure.
George W. Bush
George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, experienced a series of health-related incidents during his time in office. In 2002, he had a highly publicized incident when he passed out and injured his head, possibly from choking on a pretzel while watching a football game. In 2004, Bush tore his meniscus, a common knee injury, which may have been attributed to his active lifestyle. Additionally, he had a few minor accidents while engaging in physical activities, such as falling off his bike in 2004 and 2005, resulting in scrapes and bruises. These incidents served as reminders of the physical risks associated with the demanding role of the presidency and highlighted the importance of personal health and safety, even for the Commander-in-Chief.