Health and Medical History of President

James Buchanan

President #15
Lived: 1791-1868 Served: 1857-1861

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

Maladies and Conditions

eye defect
"An eye defect forced him to tilt his head slightly forward and sideways when engaged in conversation, which gave the impression of exceptional courtesy and sensitivity to others" 2a.

eye twitch
One of Buchanan's eyelids twitched, which, combined with his personality (in 1825, at least) led a modern Jackson biographer to describe Buchanan as a "winking, fidgeting little busybody" 7a. MORE

serious drinking
"Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor with Epicurean tastes,... was celebrated for serious drinking" 2b. He chided his liquor merchants for delivering champagne to the White House in small bottles. He would use his Sunday ride as an excuse to visit the Jacob Baer distillery in Washington and pick up a ten-gallon cask of "Old J.B. Whiskey." It would amuse him when White House guests mistook the initials J.B. for his own.

A journalist of the time wrote "There was no head ache, no faltering steps, no flushed cheek" associated with Buchanan's drinking. "Oh no! All was as cool, as calm and as cautious and watchful as in the beginning. More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his... example gathered an early fall" 2b.

Buchanan would begin his drinking with cognac and end with old rye. Two or three bottles might be consumed at one sitting. The press commented on his resistance to alcohol's effects 3a. Comment: The gout, alas, was one effect of alcohol to which he was not resistant.

Reliability of this information is uncertain. 4 Given his alcohol intake, it would not be surprising if he snored.

dysentery #1
At the time of Buchanan's inauguration (1857), the city of Washington
was a southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder and the want of sanitation. ... Fish and oyster peddlers cried their wares and tooted their horns on the corners. Flocks of geese waddled on [Pennsylvania] Avenue, and hogs, of every size and color, roamed at large, making their muddy wallows on Capitol Hill. ... People emptied slops and refuse in the gutters, and threw dead domestic animals in the canal. Most of the population still depended on the questionable water supply afforded by the wells and by the springs in the hills behind the city. Privies, in the absence of adequate sewage disposal, were plentiful in yards and dirty alleys, and every day the carts of night soil trundled out to the commons ten blocks north of the White House. 6a
Thus, it is hardly surprising that, not long before his inauguration, President-elect Buchanan was one of many dinner guests at Washington's huge National Hotel to contract a severe "intestinal malady." Buchanan recovered, but one his favorite nephews died of the "National Hotel disease" 6b.

One theory ascribed the disease, which Bumgarner labels as dysentery (bloody diarrhea), to rats that had drowned in the hotel's cooking water, kept in attic reservoirs. Another theory held that frozen pipes had caused sewage to back up to food preparation areas 3b.

Buchanan was ill for several weeks. The question has been raised whether his judgment was impaired while he prepared his inaugural address 3b.

dysentery #2
Amazingly, Buchanan developed dystentery again, on the very eve of his inaugration. The owner of the National Hotel was one of Buchanan's good friends and supporters. To show confidence in the hotel, Buchanan allowed a pre-inauguration party to be held there, which he attended. By the next day he was so sick that he doubted whether he could give his inaugural address 3b.

Buchanan was ill for several weeks. Many others got sick from the event, and one died 3b. Rumors in some extreme pro-Southern circles claimed this was a plot to poison the new leaders. In the end, however, most people accepted that sewer gas was the cause (recall that germ theory was not then well established). After closing briefly for repairs, the National Hotel re-opened, and regained its previous popularity 6b.

South Carolina seceded from the Union in the waning months of the Buchanan presidency. Buchanan later said that he had remained serene during this time of cataclysmic national fracture, and had "not lost an hour's sleep or a single meal." Others, however, described him (unsympathetically) as a broken old man who did nothing but cry and pray 6c. Leech believes both descriptions are exaggerations. She does, however, say that Buchanan's face was "haggard" at his New Year's reception 6d and describe an episode of crying in February 1861 6e.
Odds & Ends
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Cited Resources
  1. Barone, MA (ed). The Harriet Lane Handbook: A Manual for Pediatric House Officers. St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book.0815149441 Libraries.
  2. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.0195029151 Libraries 80-27092. app. 117-118 bp. 119
  3. 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. 85 bp. 86
    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.
  4. Dugan, James. Bedlam in the boudoir. Colliers. 22 Feb. 1947; pages 17, 69-70.
    Comment: Credibility is dubious. Just before a list of Presidents, the article states: "Twenty of the 32 Presidents ... are proved or believed on a thick web of circumstance to have been nocturnal nuisances in the White House."
  5. Lamon, Ward Hill. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln. Washington, DC: Dorothy Lamon Teillard, 1911. Libraries. app. 264-265
  6. Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington 1860-1865. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1962.0809435578 Libraries 80-16429. app. 11-12 bp. 10 cpp. 28-29 dp. 29 ep. 36. With "streaming eyes," Buchanan received a "peace delegation" of slave and free states at the White House. fp. 19 gp. 20
    Comment: A vivid account of Washington, DC during the Civil War. Won the Pulitzer Prize.
  7. Remini, Robert V. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Penguin, 1990 (hardback 1988).0140132678 Libraries 90-6993. ap. 153
    Comment: Well-written, coherent distillation of Remini's definitive three-volume biography of Jackson.
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