Health and Medical History of President

Benjamin Harrison

President #23
Lived: 1833-1901 Served: 1889-1893

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

Maladies and Conditions

Harrison was slender and wiry in childhood, but became chubby and square-shouldered 1a. As an adult, he was 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a big torso atop short legs. He was strong and muscular 1b.

cigar smoker
Harrison began smoking cigars in 1847-1850. His parents urged him to quit. On January 1, 1858, he resolved "Stop use of tobacco in every form" 1a.

He did not succeed in quitting, however. An Indianapolis tobacconist kept Harrison supplied with with cigars while President. Seeing Harrison with a cigar in his hand was "not atypic" and was captured on film 2a.

food poisoning
As an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, Harrison developed "ptomaine poisoning" on Nov. 24, 1862 after eating fresh pork 1b. The term is not used today, and most likely represents some form of food poisoning.

scarlet fever
Harrison survived a case of scarlet fever near the end of the Civil War, without sequelae 1b.

hand irritation
As a brigadier general with Sherman's campaign near Atlanta, Harrison developed some type of irritation on the skin of his hands, requiring him to wear gloves at all times. Bumgarner believes it may have been contact dermatitis 1b.

The susceptibility became lifelong and ultimately became a political liability: while campaigning for governor of Indiana in 1870, he became known as "Kidgloves Harrison" 1b.

It has been written about Harrison: "His bearded face was plain and square with white skin that never tanned" 1c.

breakdown #1
After two years as a reporter for the ?Indiana Supreme Court and as a lawyer, Harrison in 1867 nearly suffered a physical breakdown from overwork. His wife, Carrie, nursed him back to health, and he made some lifestyle changes: he took his first vacation in three years, and he relinquished his reporting job 1b.

breakdown #2
After campaigning in Indiana for re-election to the Senate in 1886, Harrison returned to Washington, DC "used up." It took two weeks under the care of his doctor, including a diet of "iron, strychnine, and quinine," to restore his health 1b.

breakdown #3?
While campaigning for the Presidency in 1888, there were reports that Harrison was near nervous collapse. These reports were denied, but they probably contained an element of truth 1d.

poor stamina
The stress of the 1888 Presidential campaign demonstrated to Harrison that he should conserve his strength. There is no record of a physical illness which might have caused such a lack of endurance in a 56 year old man. 1d.

Nevertheless, Harrison adopted an energy-conserving approach to the Presidency. He only carried out the laws enacted by Congress and never exerted strong leadership. When he left office in 1893 his health was as good as, or better than, it was when he entered office 1d.

a cold and toothache
As President, Harrison became tired and sick (though not seriously) on a trip to Vermont and New York in the summer of 1891 1d. MORE

wife's death
Mrs. Harrison died in the White House 5a. No doubt this affected the President, but Dr. Zebra hasn't seen a discussion of this topic.

In 1901 Harrison developed a cold. It worsened. By two days later he had a severe chill, high fever, and generalized aches and pains. Despite treatment with bed rest, pain relievers, and steam inhalations, in another 48 hours he developed pleuritic left-sided chest pain (i.e. it was worse when he inhaled), shortness of breath, and a rapid pulse.

Pneumonia was diagnosed. Oxygen was administered, and several physicians were called in consultation. Antibiotics would not be invented for decades. Harrison died the afternoon of March 13, 1901, in the arms of his wife 1e.

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Cited Resources
  1. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.0899509568 Libraries 93-42000. ap. 142 bp. 143 cp. 143, citing Marx (1960) dp. 144 ep. 145
    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.
  2. Leish, Kenneth W. (ed.) and other American Heritage Editors. The American Heritage Pictorial History of the Presidents of the United States. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1968 (in two volumes).B000AQH7Z0 Libraries 68015858. ap. 589 with illustration; Thanks to reader Michael Perdue for bringing this to my attention.
  3. Manners, William. TR and Will: A Friendship that Split the Republican Party. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969. Libraries 69-14838. ap. 29 bp. 33
  4. Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (ed). Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America. 2nd ed. London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1981.0850110335 Libraries. ap. 385
    Comment: Enumerates the ancestors and descendants of American presidents up through Ronald Reagan.
  5. Pendel, Thomas F. Thirty-Six Years in the White House. Washington: Neale Publishing Company, 1902. Libraries. app. 138-139
    Comment: Pendel was door-keeper at the White House from the time of Lincoln to the time of Theodore Roosevelt. Full text is available on-line at It's a rather dry book, and reads as if it were written by an old man.
Other Resources
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