Health and Medical History of President

Zachary Taylor

President #12
Lived: 1784-1850 Served: 1849-1850

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

"In two days I shall be a dead man." 1a

Maladies and Conditions

yellow fever
Taylor joined the US Army in 1808 (age 23). He served under Brigadier General James Wilkinson who, despite being a medical doctor, had almost half his men die from disease while encamped in appalling conditions 12 miles south of New Orleans (during peacetime). Either there or at Ft. Pickering (near today's Memphis, TN), Taylor contracted yellow fever. He returned home to Louisville, KY to recover in Sept.-Oct. 1809 1b.

dysentery
Returning to the Army after his recovery from yellow fever, Taylor developed dysentery at a fly-infested camp in Virginia. He once again returned home to recover 1c.

malaria #1
Taylor, by now a captain, was in command of Ft. Knox in summer 1810, when he got malaria. It recurred in late September, about the time the fort was attacked by Indians 1c.

chewed tobacco
Taylor chewed tobacco and spit it accurately. He did not smoke

like a barrel
Taylor had a big head, coarse features, a short neck, and thick unkept hair 1c. His body was big and barrel-shaped. His legs were short, to the degree that he required help from an orderly to get into the saddle 1c.

nearsighted
Taylor's near-sightedness, it is supposed, unconsciously caused him to keep his eyelids half-closed to sharpen his vision. This brought his heavy brows down and gave the impression of a fierce scowl 1c.

double vision
At close range (including reading), Taylor had to keep one eye closed to prevent double vision 1c.

Comment: Dr. Zebra is unsatisfied with these accounts of Taylor's visual problems. It would be nicer to have a single pathological explanation for the two problems noted. Could it be amblyopia?


malaria #2?
In November 1838, during the Second Seminole War, Taylor (by now a Brigadier General) developed fever. Probably malaria, it "confined me to my bed for near two weeks when so many was [sic] dying around me" 1d.

malaria #3
While stationed at Ft. Jessup, LA in July-August 1844, Taylor suffered several attacks of "bilious fever" (malaria). He resumed his duties after a few days during which his condition had been of concern, but remained weak for many months thereafter. After this episode he was ill more than he had been in the past 1e.

fever
Taylor was confined to bed with fever for a few days in May 1846, as he prepared to take his Army across the Rio Grande into Mexico 1f.

cholera?
While on a Presidential tour of the north in summer 1849, Taylor became ill a few days after leaving Washington. It was thought to be the beginning of "cholera," but he recovered rapidly and continued the tour -- only to have a relapse of severe diarrhea and fever in Erie, PA. His physician feared for Taylor's life. The President recovered, continued the tour briefly, then returned to Washington where, after about a month, his health appeared to normalize 1f.

tired and haggard
Scandal involved three members of Taylor's cabinet during the summer of 1850. During this stressful time, Taylor's friends noticed he was looking tired and haggard 1f.

typhoid?
July 4, 1850 was a hot day in a hot and humid summer in Washington, DC. Dysentery was circulating in town, though some said it was cholera 1g. President Taylor, not in the best of health already (see above) attended various Independence Day ceremonies. That evening he began having abdominal cramps, possibly the result of something he ate. He steadily worsened: diarrhea and fever developed, and the diarrhea turned bloody. His doctors tried what they could. He died on July 9.

Some details of those days are available MORE, but the cause of Taylor's death will probably never be known with certainty. Typhoid fever has been proposed, with suspicion directed at the cherries Taylor ate on the 4th 2a.


poisoned?
Like virtually all Presidents, there were many people who might have wished Taylor dead. Because of theories that Taylor might have been poisoned (most notably by strychnine), his body was exhumed on June 17, 1991. With permission of descendants, samples of it were analyzed. Some arsenic was found, but in quantities said to be too small to cause harm 1e. This has not satisfied some commentators, who find flaws in the testing methods 4.

Comment: A casual look at Zachary Taylor's health history shows that he was pretty well beaten up, medically, by the summer of 1850. Furthermore, during the 1800s Washington, DC was a very unhealthy place to be during the summer. Thus, it would have been easy enough for Mother Nature to carry off Zachary Taylor without help from a poisoner. The burden of proof remains with those who suggest Taylor's end was not natural.

Odds & Ends
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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. 75 - He was right. bpp. 72-73 cp. 73, citing Marx, who, in turn, never provides references dp. 73 epp. 73-74 fp. 74 gp. 75 hp. 72
    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. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.0918535018 Libraries 87-81241. ap. 18
  3. 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. 127
    Comment: Enumerates the ancestors and descendants of American presidents up through Ronald Reagan.
  4. Parenti, Michael. History as Mystery. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999.0872863573 Libraries 99034698.
    Comment: Pages 209-240 discuss Taylor's demise and the 1991 testing for toxic substances. Dr. Zebra has not read this book. Apparently, however, Parenti criticizes the arsenic testing performed on Taylor's hair because the arsenic concentration was reported as an average over the entire hair shaft. This would indeed tend to underestimate the arsenic concentration if Taylor had been poisoned, because if Taylor had been poisoned, arsenic would have been deposited only in the part of the hair that grew between the time of the poisoning and death -- supposedly just a few days. Thus, only the smallest bit of hair nearest the scalp would have arsenic and the rest of each hair shaft would be arsenic-free. The concentration of arsenic in the entire hair shaft is therefore irrelevant, and only the concentration nearest the scalp matters. This value was apparently not reported.
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