Health and Medical History of President

Thomas Jefferson

President #3
Lived: 1743-1826 Served: 1801-1809

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

Maladies and Conditions

severe headaches
From age 19 on, Jefferson had a tendency to develop prolonged incapacitating headaches, usually at 7-8 year intervals, usually correlated with stress or grief, complicated by indecision and deeply buried rage 1a:
  • Violent headache for two days after behaving awkwardly in front of a girl he fancied (March 1764, age 20);
  • Six week headache after his mother's death on March 31, 1776;
  • Six weeks of headache soon after arriving, unhappy and homesick, as minister to France in 1785;
  • While overburdened as Secretary of State, headaches recurred when he learned that a friend had become ill, but recovered (April 1790);
  • About this time he had a second set of headaches, lasting from sunrise to sunset each day for 6 weeks.
Bumgarner concludes these were a form of cluster headache 1b, but also believes there was a tension component, as horseback riding offered relief 1b. At age 75 Jefferson wrote: "A periodical headache has afflicted me occasionally, once perhaps in six to eight years for two to three weeks at a time, which seeems now to have left me" 1c.

smallpox inoculation
Jefferson was inoculated against smallpox 1d. He himself inoculated his own family -- a procedure not to be taken lightly, as the experience of his contemporary, John Adams, illustrates.

arm fracture
In late June 1781, Jefferson (apparently) broke his arm [which one?] after being thrown from his horse 1e.

right wrist fracture
Jefferson broke his wrist in Paris in summer 1785. This seemingly minor event was to cause him grief the remainder of his life. There are three versions of the incident: (1) He was trying to jump a fence while touring Paris with a married woman, (2) He was trying to jump over a kettle, and (3) He fell while walking with an (unidentified) friend 1e.

One account described the fracture as compound and poorly treated by the Parisian doctors. The wrist remained swollen, painful, and useless for weeks 1e. Despite taking the waters at Aix-en-Provence, it remained deformed and bothered him the rest of his life 1f.


dysentery
Jefferson developed severe dysentery (bloody diarrhea) in 1802. He consulted no doctor, feeling that horseback riding helped 1b. (This seemed to be Jefferson's cure-all therapy.) Bumgarner wonders if tension played a role in this illness 1b.

back injury
After perfoming extensive manual labor at Monticello (his estate) in late summer 1794, Jefferson became almost totally disabled by a back condition for two and a half months. The nature of the problem is not fully known 1b. Repeated bouts of back pain assailed Jefferson after this initial episode, e.g. in 1797 1b.

depression
Jefferson's back problems (see above), financial troubles, and personal vicissitudes depressed him ca. 1793-1797. He believed his physical health was so poor that death was near 1b.

jaw infection
A severe jaw infection occurred in January 1808 1g. Bumgarner believes this was most likely due to a decayed and infected tooth, but Jefferson's 1819 statement that he head never lost a tooth to age gives pause 3a 1c.

reading glasses
From "middle age on" Jefferson required spectacles to read 1g. In his 70s he wore spectacles at night "but not necessarily in the day unless in reading small print" 1c.

rheumatism and constipation
Jefferson was disabled by "'rheumatism" in summer 1811 1g. Again, the exact nature of the illness is obscure. (I am not clear if it was related to his back problems mentioned above.)

In 1818 he had his most severe attack of rheumatism ever. It was accompanied by life-threatening constipation. 1h. Taking the waters at Warm Springs, VA helped the rheumatism 1g.


buttock boils
In the third week of taking the waters at Warm Springs (1818) Jefferson developed boils on his buttocks. (The 50+ mile ride to the spa plus possibly unsanitary conditions there may have predisposed to the illness.) As may be imagined, his homeward return ride was a trial. Once home, for several weeks he conducted his correspondence lying down. He did not ride a horse for several months. "Jefferson always believed that this experience had greatly injured his health" 1g.

wrist and arm fracture
Jefferson fell from a broken step at home in 1821 (age 75), fracturing his left arm and wrist. Now both wrists were significantly impaired (see above). He wrote less, even into 1822 1h.

weakening
In 1819 (age 75) he was "too feeble to walk much but riding without fatigue six to eight miles per day, and sometimes thirty or forty" 1c. Comment: This seems like a remarkable dissociation between exercise tolerance while walking and while sitting. Dr. Zebra wonders if Jefferson had spinal stenosis because these patients are limited in their walking, but may have much better capacity for bicycling and other forms of exercise when seated. Jefferson had a history of back problems.

Jefferson's strength declined further in winter 1822, but he remained in generally good health. (He dreaded the winters at this age.) He could walk "only [to] reach my garden, and that with sensible fatigue" 1h.


hearing loss
In 1819 Jefferson wrote "My hearing is distinct in particular conversation, but confused when several voices cross each other, which unfits me for the society of the table" 1c. (This experience is a classic manifestation of high-frequency hearing loss.) By 1825, however: "This [hearing] dullness of mine causes me to lose much of the conversation of the world and much a stranger to what is passing in it" 1h. Comment: Dr. Zebra suspects that Jefferson's fondness for shooting as a form of exercise caused the hearing loss.

prostatic enlargement
There are statements (without a description of symptoms) that Jefferson had prostatic enlargement in at least the final year of life 1h.

teeth
At age 75 Jefferson wrote: "I have not yet lost a tooth to age" 3a. Comment: Having great teeth is a sign of hereditary fructase deficiency, but swift consultation of a few Jefferson biographies fails to disclose an aversion to sweets, the other cardinal symptom of the disorder.

Asperger Syndrome?
It has been postulated that Jefferson had Asperger Syndrome, a type of autism compatible with high achievement 4. Dr. Zebra has not evaluated this hypothesis, but his first impulse is that distinguishing disease from eccentricity is very difficult 200 years out.

sleep
Slept propped up in a bed that was otherwise too short for him. (Dr. Zebra heard this on a tour of Monticello around 1990.)

slaves
Recent stories about genetic "proof" that Jeffersion fathered a child by one of his slaves are not proof. The technique used in the testing cannot determine whether Jefferson or one of his close male relatives fathered the child(ren).

timing
Jefferson became comatose on July 2, 1826. On the third he awakened and asked, "Is it the fourth?" He died 50 minutes into the next day, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence 1i, a few hours before his onetime rival John Adams. Adams' last words, "Thomas Jefferson still survives" were mistaken. 3b.
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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. app. 16-17 bp. 21 cp. 23 dp. 19 ep. 20 fpp. 20-21, 23 gp. 22 hp. 24 ip. 25 jp. 16 kp. 17 lp. 18 mp. 19-20
    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. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.0316172383 Libraries 2002116388. ap. 327
  3. Hall, Donald (ed.). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. Oxford: Oxford, 1981.0195029380 Libraries 80-27436. ap. 23 bp. 25 cp. 24
  4. Ledgin, Norm. Diagnosing Jefferson: Evidence of a Condition that Guided his Beliefs, Behavior, and Personal Associations. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, 2000.1885477600 Libraries 2001274289.
  5. 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. 111
    Comment: Enumerates the ancestors and descendants of American presidents up through Ronald Reagan.
  6. Stern, C. C. Braddock's Presidential Trivia. 3rd edition. Herndon, VA: Braddock Communications, Inc., 2001.0931147655 Libraries. ap. 3
Other Resources
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