Woodrow Wilson nearly died of the 1918 flu pandemic during sensitive negotiations with world leaders at the Paris Peace Talks. With the flu decimating civilians and soldiers in World War I—20 million people eventually died from the disease worldwide—Wilson’s doctor lied, telling the press the President had caught a cold from the rain in Paris.
Wilson’s illness depleted him, and aides became worried it was hindering the president's ability to negotiate. Ultimately, Wilson relinquished his demands on French leader Georges Clemenceau, accepting the demilitarization of the Rhineland and French occupation of it for at least 15 years. The resulting Treaty of Versailles was so harsh on Germany that it contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.
It wouldn’t be the last time a doctor lied about Wilson’s condition: In 1919, he suffered a series of strokes that prompted his cabinet to suggest the vice president take over. First Lady Edith Wilson and the president’s doctor, Cary Grayson, refused.
The public had limited information about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s physical condition when he ran for president in 1932. The press corps avoided mentioning that Roosevelt used a wheelchair. By the time he ran for a fourth term in 1944, he had heart disease, was constantly tired and had trouble concentrating. Frank Lahey, a surgeon who examined Roosevelt, wrote a memo saying FDR would never survive another four-year term. The memo was not disclosed until 2011.
Harry Truman, FDR’s final running mate, was shocked when he saw Roosevelt for the first time in a year, because, as he told an aide, “physically he’s just going to pieces” — a moment recounted in Michael Beschloss’s book “The Conquerors.” When a friend told Truman to take a close look at the White House because he would soon be living there, Truman answered, “I’m afraid I am, and it scares the hell out of me.”
But the public didn’t know any of this, Beschloss writes. Roosevelt’s opponent, Thomas Dewey, derided “tired old men” in the White House, but Roosevelt sailed to victory that November. He died just months later, in April 1945, leaving Truman to close out World War II. Truman had known nothing of the Manhattan Project and had to make the difficult decision about dropping atomic bombs on Japan.
But the full extent of Kennedy’s medical ordeals has not been known until now. Earlier this year a small committee of Kennedy-administration friends and associates agreed to open a collection of his papers for the years 1955–63. I was given access to these newly released materials, which included X-rays and prescription records from Janet Travell’s files. Together with recent research and a growing understanding of medical science, the newly available records allow us to construct an authoritative account of JFK’s medical tribulations. And they add telling detail to a story of lifelong suffering, revealing that many of the various treatments doctors gave Kennedy, starting when he was a boy, did far more harm than good. In particular, steroid treatments that he may have received as a young man for his intestinal ailments could have compounded—and perhaps even caused—both the Addison’s disease and the degenerative back trouble that plagued him later in life. Travell’s prescription records also confirm that during his presidency—and in particular during times of stress, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in April of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962—Kennedy was taking an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; anti-spasmodics for his colitis; antibiotics for urinary-tract infections; antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines.