4 Freaky Presidential Health Facts

Written by Aimee Wharton
Posted February 15, 2016

In honor of President's Day, Health Wire decided to investigate the men behind the curtain and take stock of their unfortunate — and sometimes peculiar — health habits and issues. 

Let's start at the beginning...

1. George Washington's Trouble with Teeth

George Washington suffered severe dental issues his entire life, and had his first tooth extracted in his early 20s. By the time a 57-year-old Washington became president in 1789, he only had one tooth to his name. 

One of the most enduring tall tales about our nation's first president is that he had a pair of wooden dentures. Fact is, Washington had numerous pairs of dentures throughout his lifetime, but never any made out of wood. 

Instead, his dentures were made out of stronger (and stranger) materials like hippopotamus tusks, human teeth, bone, lead, gold, and ivory. 


George Washington's last remaining pair of dentures on display at Mt. Vernon

Dentistry during colonial times was a rather crude science, and Washington's ill-fitting dentures were clearly no exception. 

“The most famous portraits of Washington,” colonial historian Rebecca Jo Tannenbaum says, “illustrate the swollen lips and puffy cheeks caused by his uncomfortable dentures and long history of dental disease.”1 

2. Thomas Jefferson's Oddball Bathing Habits

Every morning, Thomas Jefferson would rise with the sun. Then he would soak his feet in a bucket of cold water, convinced this practice promoted health and fought off the common cold. 

He even penned a letter to Doctor Vine Utley in 1819 attributing his lack of “catarrhs” (or common colds) to “the habit of bathing my feet in cold water, every morning for sixty years past.”2

Historical records also show that Jefferson visited Warm Springs in Bath County, Virginia. For a period of three weeks, he bathed three times per day for 15 minutes at a time.3 Even by 21st century standards bathing three times a day can be deemed overzealous, but back then Jefferson's frequent submersion truly set him apart as a rarity. 

In Colonial America, the jury was out on bathing. As the Smithsonian Institute points out, some early Americans saw swimming as a fun pastime, but it “was something most people did only to escape drowning.”4 

3. William McKinley and Modern Medical Machines

William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile — the electric ambulance that took him to the hospital after he was shot twice with a .32 caliber revolver at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY.

What at first seemed a stroke of luck — there was a small hospital right on the Exposition grounds — ultimately wasn't enough to save McKinley's life. 

At the Exposition hospital, the first bullet was quickly recovered, but the second bullet — which entered his abdomen — was nowhere to be found. In fact, during McKinley's postmortem examination the bullet still couldn't be located, but after four full hours of doctors digging around inside her husband, Mrs. Ida McKinley called the autopsy to an end. 

Today, historians and medical experts alike wonder if a primitive X-ray machine — not only was it invented before McKinley was shot, but it was on display at the Exposition — could've found the missing bullet and saved his life.5 

It's likely that his abdominal wound would've turned gangrenous anyway (even without surgeons rooting around his stomach cavity to find that elusive second bullet), but whether the X-ray machine could've saved his life remains a subject of conjecture among historians. 

4. John F. Kennedy's Secret Diseases

As the youngest president ever elected, the media portrayed the handsome JFK as full of swagger — the perfect picture of vim and vigor (or “vigah,” as the Kennedys would say in their famous new England dialect).6 

But this projected image couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, his medical records read like a tome, and he was “ill and ailment-ridden for his entire life,” says The Atlantic.7 

He suffered from ulcers, colitis, and even Addison's disease — a rare and life-threatening disorder where the adrenal glands don't produce the crucial hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, metabolism, and even heart and blood vessel function. 

In order to make up for these hormonal deficiencies, doctors regularly injected Kennedy with steroid shots. “I don't care if it's horse piss,” JFK said about the contents of these injections. “It works.” 

Kennedy also had severe back problems — so severe, in fact, that he often used crutches when he was out of the public's eye, and he underwent a serious back operation that almost killed him in 1954. 

In addition to using crutches, he also wore a corset-like back brace to hold his spine straight... but the real kicker is that experts believe this back brace contributed to his death by assassination: 

“When the first bullet struck him in the back of the neck, his back brace held him erect, allowing the next and fatal bullet to strike the back of his head. JFK’s aching back was with him until the bitter end.”8

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