Health and Medical History of President

Andrew Jackson

President #7
Lived: 1767-1845 Served: 1829-1837

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

"A tougher piece of slender manhood than Andrew Jackson never lived." 5a

Maladies and Conditions

"Andy entered his thirteenth year a tall, lean, remarkably agile, freckle-faced boy with bright blue eyes, a shock of tousled hair that was almost red and a temper in keeping. He would fight at the drop of a hat, by that means mitigating a misfortune that would have ruined the prestige of an ordinary boy. Andy had a habit of 'slobbering' which he was unable to control until almost grown, but a jest at this circumstance spelled combat, whatever the odds." 2a

head and left hand
During the Revolutionary War, 14 year old Andrew Jackson and his older brother Robert were captured by British soldiers in the Battle of Hanging Rock. 6a The officer in command ordered Jackson to clean his boots. Jackson refused. The officer raised his sword to strike a violent blow at the boy's head. Jackson ducked and threw up his left hand. "It was cut to the bone, and a gash on his head left a white scar that Andrew Jackson carried through a long life that profited little to England or any Englishman." 2b

Jackson's mother persuaded the British to release her boys, but by this time both had contracted smallpox. Jackson's mother and his critically ill brother rode horseback on the 45 mile journey home. Andrew walked barefoot and without a jacket, despite a driving rain the last day of the trek. Robert died two days later. Andrew was delirious and in mortal danger. Over several months, he slowly recovered. When Andrew seemed out of danger, his mother left to nurse prisoners of war in Charleston, but contracted cholera there and died. 6b

"The American Revolution was one long agony for Andrew Jackson.... He experienced hardship, pain, disease, multiple wounds of the head and fingers, and grief arising from the annihilation of his immediate family. [His oldest brother, Hugh, had died of heat stroke after the Battle of Stono Ferry.] He emerged from the Revolution burdened with sorrow and a deep-seated depression.... He never forgot the price that he and others had paid" to secure Liberty. 6b

As an adult, Jackson was six feet tall, but never weighed over 145 pounds 6c. His thin frame actually saved his life in the 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was an expert marksman, while Jackson was neither a quick shot nor an epecially good one. Jackson decided not to compete with Dickinson for the first shot, but to take the hit, and rely on his willpower to sustain himself until he could aim deliberately and shoot to kill. On the day of the duel, Jackson wore a dark blue frock coat and trousers of the same material. Dickinson got a shot off first, as Jackson had planned. James 2c describes what happened:
   A fleck of dust rose from Jackson's coat and his left hand clutched his chest. For an instant he thought himself dying, but, fighting for self-command, slowly he raised his pistol.
   Dickinson recoiled a step horror-stricken. "My God! Have I missed him?"
   Overton [Jackson's second] presented his pistol. "Back to the mark, sir!"
   Dickinson folded his arms. Jackson's spare frame straightened. He aimed... and fired. Dickinson swayed to the ground... [and later died].
   [Jackson, too, was wounded, to the point where his left boot had filled with blood.]
   Jackson's surgeon found that Dickinson's aim had been perfectly true, but he had judged the position of Jackson's heart by the set of his coat, and Jackson wore his coats loosely on account of the excessive slenderness of his figure.

chest bullet
Dickinson's bullet shattered two of Jackson's ribs and buried itself in his chest, near his heart. Jackson's left boot filled with blood from the wound. More than a month passed before he could move around without difficulty. The wound never properly healed and caused Jackson considerable discomfort for the rest of his nearly 40 years. 6d

left arm and shoulder
During a September 1813 gunfight with the Benton brothers in downtown Nashville, the cause of which is a little cloudy, Jackson was shot by a slug and a ball. The slug shattered his left shoulder and the ball embedded against his left humerus. Jackson bled profusely, soaking two mattresses after being moved to a room in the Nashville Inn. Every physician in town tried to stanch the flow of blood, and all but one recommended amputation of the left arm. Jackson refused: "I'll keep my arm" was the last thing he said before becoming unconscious. Both wounds were dressed with poultices. Jackson was utterly prostrate from the great loss of blood -- it was three weeks before he could leave his bed. 6e (But, by 34 days after the shooting, Jackson was commanding troops in the field 2d.)

? Contracted in the swamps of Florida during the Seminole campaigns of 1818-1821. 6f

? Contracted in the swamps of Florida during the Seminole campaigns of 1818-1821. 6f Chronic abdominal pain for years afterwards -- may have been lead 1.

bullet removal
By 1831, Jesse Benton's 1813 bullet was migrating and causing periods of intense discomfort. Jackson considered going to Philadelphia to have it removed, but decided against it "because of the political motives which would have been imputed." 7 So, in January 1832, Dr. Thomas Harris, chief of the Navy's Bureau of Medicine, was summoned to the White House to remove the bullet. 4a "No anesthesia was available, of course, so Jackson simply bared his arm, gritted his jaws,... and said `Go ahead.' The surgeon made an incision, squeezed the arm, and out popped [the bullet]." 6g Jackson's health improved at once, which has led to speculation that the bullet was causing or contributing to lead poisoning, for which there is some evidence 1.

Chronic abdominal pain for years.

"Now, Doctor, I can do anything you think proper, except give up coffee and tobacco." Later in life Jackson suffered headaches from tobacco use [Parton]. 3a

Jackson most probably died of heart failure. He started experiencing near suffocating shortness of breath toward the beginning of 1845. Early in April, his feet and legs swelled, then his hands and abdomen, prompting him to write: "It may be that my life ends in dropsy, all means hitherto used to stay the swelling has now failed to check it" 6h He had been unable to lie flat for several months, and required propping-up with pillows in both his bed at night and his chair during the day. By late spring his face was edematous, too: "I am a blubber of water." 6i
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Cited Resources
  1. Deppisch LM, Centeno JA, Gemmel DJ, Torres NL. Andrew Jackson's exposure to mercury and lead: poisoned president?. JAMA. 1999 Aug 11;282(6):569-71.
  2. James, Marquis. The Life of Andrew Jackson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938. Libraries. ap. 17 bpp. 25-26 cpp. 117-118 dp. 157
    Comment: A wonderful book that won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. It is actually composed of two books that were originally published separately: The Border Captain and Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President.
  3. James, Marquis. Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, unknown year (originally published in 1937 by Bobbs-Merrill). Libraries. ap. 340
  4. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.0918535018 Libraries 87-81241. ap. 9
  5. Parton, James. Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Mason Brothers, 1861. Libraries. ap. 667
    Comment: The first of the multi-volume Jackson biographies. Three volumes.
  6. Remini, Robert V. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Penguin, 1990 (hardback 1988).0140132678 Libraries 90-6993. ap. 8 bp. 9 cp. 7 dp. 54 ep. 70 fp. 137 gp. 223 hp. 355 ip. 356
    Comment: Well-written, coherent distillation of Remini's definitive three-volume biography of Jackson.
  7. Sotos, John. Presidential disability and the twenty-fifth amendment. JAMA. 1995;274:799 [letter]. Pubmed 7650802.
Other Resources
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