Health and Medical History of President

William Taft

President #27
Lived: 1857-1930 Served: 1909-1913

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

"My dear, all I have to do to beat the Vice President is to live." 8a MORE

Maladies and Conditions

wagon accident
At age 9, he suffered a slight skull fracture and a bad cut on the head when the horses drawing the family carriage ran off. 13a For the rest of his life he carried "a deep depression" in his skull 17a. There was speculation this injury damaged Taft's pituitary gland and caused his obesity 9a, but this is unlikely because: (1) Taft was big from birth 13b MORE and (2) throughout his life, Taft's weight generally paralleled his unhappiness 13c 1a 7a.

As a child, Taft used to go swimming in a Cincinnati canal. A year before his death, he wrote: "I remember one occasion... when the sun was very hot and... the next day my back was so burned that I had to have a doctor and remain in bed.... I am sure that an examination of my back will still show the freckles that were the result of that day's excursion." 13d Taft had fair skin, blue eyes and light hair 13e.

typhoid fever
Forty years after the event, Taft wrote that he and his brothers came down with typhoid fever after a visit to Middle Bass Island when he was about 10. His casual tone in the letter suggests it was not a severe illness 19a.

severe obesity
"Not much can be said about Taft's health without saying a great deal about his size" 7b. Taft was 5 feet 11.5 inches tall 10. He weighed 243 pounds when he graduated from college 13c and, by all accounts, carried it well. By age 48, when he had been Secretary of War for two years, he weighed 320 pounds 13f. Under the guidance of English physician Dr. N. E. Yorke-Davies, he lost 70 pounds over the next year and a half 13f. But two years after that, he was once again over 300 pounds MORE. He weighed 335-340 pounds when he left the White House [see photo MORE ]. He then lost weight rapidly, dropping to 270 in a year and a half. The summer before he died, he weighed 244 pounds, just one pound more than his college weight. Details and graphs are available on the Apneos web site and in reference 16.

Taft was big almost from birth. It's clear, however, that he had an enormous appetite. MORE

Taft's size impressed some people, but often made him the butt of jokes MORE. Note: Judged solely by body mass index, a 5-foot 11-inch person weighing more than 290 pounds is severely obese.

generally abstained
Taft did not smoke. In college, he drank, if at all, only an occasional glass of beer. 13g During Taft's first year in office, his aide wrote 8b:
The President never takes anything to drink at all, but is most profligate in making others imbibe. I do not see how he sits through these long dinners and banquets without taking enough merely to exhilarate him, but he takes no alcoholic liquors of any kind and seems to be much the better for it.
Taft became a teetotaller in 1906, three years before becoming President. 2a MORE

perineal abscess
Taft lived in Manila as Governor of the Philippines from 1900 to 1903. In September 1901 he developed a fever and was diagnosed (probably incorrectly) with dengue. In early October he developed abdominal pain. Late that month, an abscess in the perineum ruptured. After an emergency operation, he was near death for several days, but recovered. A second operation was necessary in late November 1901, and the need for a third became apparent in February 1902 MORE. In March 1903 he developed amoebic dysentery and was forced to bed MORE leading some to believes the original abscess was amoebic 7c.

food poisoning #1
On September 24, 1905, Taft wrote his wife from Japan: "We had an informal dinner given by the President of the Tea Guild ... and whatever the cause, we were all made sick so that the next morning there were twelve of us who had to report being roused in the night with a diarrhoea and in some cases cramp and colic" 19b.

food poisoning #2
Taft was Secretary of War in June 1907. During a cross-country speaking and inspection tour that month, he ate some bad fish at the Minneapolis Club in Minnesota. He had diarrhea and "violent" vomiting at 4 am and 7 am the next morning. Nevertheless, Taft continued with activities the next day. He almost collapsed doing so, and was given whiskey as stimulant, which prompted only "a renewal of my troubles" 19c MORE. The episode was sufficiently alarming that it elicited letters of concern from President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt's White House physician 4a.

In the first days of his remarkable diet at the end of 1905, Taft wrote "I used to suffer from acidity of the stomach, and I suppose that was due to overloading it. Since I have undertaken this diet I have not suffered from it at all." 19d

Taft became non-compliant with his diet within a few years and his problem returned. In May 1908 he wrote his wife: "I have quit eating bacon in the morning for breakfast. I believe it gives me acidity of the stomach, and it is one of the most difficult things to digest I believe there are, if you take it as any substantial part of the meal. At least when I give it up, I cease to have trouble in the forenoon." 19e

voice strain #1
Before the era of microphones and loudspeakers, political candidates had to make their voice heard to crowds numbering into the thousands. In the 1908 Presidential campaign, Taft wrote friends and family no fewer than five times about his voice MORE. He sometimes traveled with a throat specialist, a Dr. Richardson 19f. Taft described the treatments of Dr. Richardson and others as "he blew me out" and speculated "I fancy these fellows put some cocaine in their treatment" 19c. Finally, on election night 1908, "Taft went out to acknowledge the greeting. His voice was hoarse and the lines of his face were deeply etched in the glare of the torches. He was utterly tired." 13h Taft also strained his voice while President (see below).

Taft's voice, by the way, was tenor. This startled audiences who expected a deep bass from so big a man 11a.

sleep apnea
The definitive website describing William Howard Taft and sleep apnea is sponsored by Apneos Corporation. Taft had severe sleep apnea throughout his Presidency 16.

May 1, 1909: Taft caught a bad cold that lasted several days 8c. MORE It was the first event in a terrible month for him.

bug injures eye
May 8, 1909: "The President certainly has bad luck these days of spring. No sooner did his fever and cold leave him sufficiently for him to resume his exercise and horseback riding than a bug flew in his eye and injured that feature so badly that he has now been laid up with it for several days and has to wear a bandage over it" 8d.

wife's stroke
May 17, 1909: In the morning, Taft's young son Charlie endured a bloody adenoid operation. Later that day his wife suffered a stroke, rendering her unable to speak. "The President looked like a great stricken animal. I have never seen greater suffering or pain shown on a man's face" 8e. Presaging the cover-up of President Woodrow Wilson's stroke, word of the event was kept from the public. Taft kept all his appointments 14a and Mrs. Taft's sisters became White House hostesses 18a. MORE

horse fall
May 18, 1909: despite his wife's stroke, Taft went horseback riding, which he did almost every day while President 8f. On this day, his aide recorded 8g:
The President was thrown from his horse this afternoon, but luckily not hurt. I am sure he is bruised and that he will be very sore to-morrow, but it was lucky that he was not killed. MORE
Taft had other problems with horses during his political career, including (1) the famous telegram from Secretary of War Elihu Root (see below) and (2) an angry exchange with his military aide at the Grand Canyon when Taft wanted to ride a horse down the trail into the Canyon. The aide, who "had no idea of letting him run the risk of breaking his neck and imposing the Vice President on the country as the Chief Executive," finally persuaded Taft it was not wise 8h. MORE

Occurred in early September 1909. The chief result was to slow down the President's golf game 8i.

Taft had gout attacks in both feet. His first attack may have been after shaking hands with thousands of people in Pocatello, Idaho in September 1909 (age 53). Taft wrote that he "developed a pain in the joint of the [right] big toe due I suppose to standing so long when shaking hands in one position. Doctor suspects a little gout, but this [is] too aristocratic for me" 19g.

Within ten months, Taft had become very sensitive about the possibility he had gout, and tried hard to conceal the fact from his wife. He got angry at people who suggested his foot pain was gouty. The dialog between Taft and the physician who finally made the definitive diagnosis is priceless. MORE Taft's aides actively hid the gout from the public during his Presidency 8j. Taft continued to have attacks as President 6a and in later life wore a gout shoe 14b. He also developed gout stones in his urinary bladder (see below).

Oct. 3, 1909: "I am still suffering from my cold, but I am hopeful that tomorrow and the rest of today may save my voice. I had no difficulty n making seven thousand people hear in the Armory last night" 19h.

Although Taft was a 320-pound middle-aged man, his physical strength repeatedly surprised others. MORE For example, while visiting Yosemite National Park in October 1909, Taft and John Muir walked the four mile, 3242-foot descent from Glacier Point down to the floor of the Yosemite Valley. They quickly outdistanced the rest of the party, many of whom rode horseback. (The horse provided for Taft had appeared unequal to the President's bulk, so Taft was advised to walk.) Taft wrote: "While I am tired from the open air exercise, I feel greatly the better for it." 15a 19i

Taft was drenched with perspiration when he reached the Valley floor. His luggage was hours away, and there was no one within a hundred pounds of being able to lend him their clothes. "So while his clothes dried, the President went to bed and the affairs of State languished!" 15a.

voice strain #2
Taft toured the entire country from September through November 1909, making speeches frequently. In Houston on Oct. 23 "The speaking platform was too high above the people, and the number of them was so great and my effort to make them hear so strenuous, that I strained my vocal chords, and haven't yet recovered their use" 19j. He continued making speeches, however, including four in St. Louis on the 25th. At a morning speech in the St. Louis Coliseum, "my voice was in bad condition, but from what people tell me I was able to make myself heard." At his lunchtime speech "my voice had become so husky as to make it almost impossible." And by the time of a building dedication in the afternoon "my voice was in such condition as to make what I said very short and very formal and perfunctory." 19k Over the next few days his voice started to recover 19l 19m. By Nov. 2, "My voice, while a bit rough, I am able to use with effect even in the open air" 19n.

During subsequent cross-country trips, sometimes giving 17 speeches a day, Taft wrote his wife almost daily about his voice (Sept. 17 - Oct. 30, 1911; May 13 - 19, 1912). 13i

car accidents
Taft was the first sitting President to use automobiles regularly. And he was nearly the first President killed in a car accident. In March 1910 Taft's car was struck by a trolley in New York City and carried a half-block down Eighth Avenue. No one was hurt, but the President was shaken 6b.

Taft had several other mishaps in cars and trains during his public life MORE.

Dr. James Marsh Jackson found that Taft's systolic blood pressure was 210 mmHg in 1910 19o. At that time, Taft's weight was near its peak as was, presumably, the severity of his sleep apnea. By 1926 his blood pressure was 160-165/100 and his weight 60-70 pounds lower 19p.

pink eye
On March 25, 1911, Taft's aide wrote: "The President said he would not got out this afternoon. I passed by the office early in the afternoon and found Senator Crane there. I told him that the President was not coming over and asked him to go to the house, as Mr. Taft was laid up with pink eye and would welcome a visitor" 8k.

motion sick
Taft and his party got "pale and green" during a high speed train journey on June 7, 1911. Being aboard the last car of the train, they were, Taft's aide wrote, "switched around as if we were the end of a cat's tail. We were ill just as if we had been turned topsy-turvy at sea" 8l.

headache/ TMJ
"Without exercise for two days and three meals a day, on the two days' cruise, I developed a headache which the exercises and the [illegible] drove away" 19q.

It is unclear if this was related to events Taft described to his wife three weeks later:

I had an attack of neuralgia in the side of my face especially in the region where the lower jaw hinges on the upper jaw. At first I thought it to be a tooth but I satisfied myself that this could not be. I called in Doctor Dr. Davis who is Dr. DeLaney's assistant and he gave me some medicine which seems to have moderated the pain much. It was difficult for me to eat and that you know is a terrible deprivation for me. 19r
The attack lasted about two days.

bald spot sunburn
In Leavenworth, Kansas: "Got my bald head sunburned in heat which has been fierce today" 19s.

Taft had a cold in late November 1911, causing him to cancel a trip to Richmond 8m.

mosquito netting
It appears that mosquito netting was routinely used in the White House: "Will Herron complained somewhat of the mosquitoes last night, and I see evidences of them against the netting. I don't know whether we have any mosquito bars or not. I think we used to have" 19t. (Mosquito bars are frames on which mosquito netting can be draped.)

"The doctor came and gave me some Epsom salts this morning at six o'clock, and it has given me a stomach ache. This sort of drenching is necessary but it is not always comfortable, and it may require me to cut short this letter" 19u. Comment: Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. When taken orally, magnesium sulfate induces diarrhea. This may have been the "drenching" Taft referred to, and would explain why he might have to cut short the letter!

minor trauma
Almost every night, Taft's military aide, Major Archibald Butt, would write a letter to his sister-in-law. Published after the death of Taft 8, these unique and honest letters provide a window into even the smallest parts of a President's life. Poor Butt, who died on the Titanic, spares not even himself when he relates how he slammed a car door on the President's hand and, on another occasion, drove a golf ball into the President's thigh MORE.

cried in office
On at least two occasions during Taft's presidency, events reduced him to tears. Both, of course, involved politics, which Taft detested, and the 1912 campaign in particular. MORE

writers' ache
Here is how Taft ended his presidency on March 3, 1913 13j: "His final task was to sign his name, again and again, to satisfy the thousands of requests for his autograph. He did this for hours, until midnight came and the muscles of his hands were weary. Then he went to bed, only to worry and toss because so many autographs remained to be scribbled. So he arose at two-thirty and worked for another half hour."

digestive ill
Taft embarked on a speaking tour of the West on August 1, 1917, but got only as far as Clay Center, Kansas. On August 7 he cabled his wife: "In bed with acute digestion [sic]. Hope to be out tomorrow but it may be prolonged" 19v. A week later he was finally able to travel. He returned to his summer home in Quebec and later wrote: "There is no fool like an old fool. [I went out to speak 30 times in 30 days and broke down.] Fortunately, my digestive apparatus seems to be recovering its normal status" 19w.

car accident
In 1921 Taft's car skidded on a Washington street in a rainstorm and his knees were badly bruised 14c. It is not clear if Taft was driving (or even knew how to drive) 5. It is also unclear if this incident led to his "rheumatic" knee, described below.

atrial fibrillation
On July 10, 1913, Taft developed a fainting feeling while playing golf, and had to sit down 19x, The episode was blamed on his aggressive dieting. In retrospect, it may have been the first episode of atrial fibrillation, which became fully manifest circa 1923 19y in the paroxysmal form. By August 1924 he was taking three digitalis pills a day 19z. It is possible, but unclear, that he was chronically in atrial fibrillation by September 1926 19aa. His blood pressure at this time was 160-165/100 and his heart rate 50-55/minute and irregular 19p.

"internal inflammation"
On April 27, 1923 Taft wrote to his brother that he was suffering from an "internal inflammation." He ascribed this to the hard work he was doing 13k. It is unclear what this condition was.

"He had been having trouble with his prostate gland and this had been relieved by treatment" in early 1913 13l.

In December 1922 "the Chief Justice told his relatives and friends about a brief period of hospitalization in which gravel had been removed from his bladder" 13k. These were "30 or 40 calculi or uric acid origin" 19ab, i.e. a complication of gout.

Shortly before he died in 1930, it was disclosed that Taft had chronic cystitis 11b

achy knee
Taft visited King George V of England in 1922. Taft was please the King let him sit. Otherwise, "it would have been a very great strain ... because my knee is rheumatic" 13m.

mental decline
Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1923 -- the only President ever to serve on the high court. As early as 1925, however, Taft noticed that he was slowing down mentally. He noticed it more as the years passed. As Chief Justice, he administered the oath of office at President Hoover's inauguration in March 1929, but became confused about his lines and had to improvise. Although his general health declined, Taft was his normal alert self as December 1929 ended. By the end of January 1930 he was hallucinating. By the end of February 1930 he was intermittently comatose. He was dead on March 8 13n 11c. MORE

Some believe Taft had Alzheimer disease 7a. But, given his coronary disease (see below), it is likely he had cerebrovascular disease, too.

wearing out
In his fifties Taft developed signs of "hardening of the arteries" accompanied by a rising blood pressure 11d 14d. His exercise tolerance decreased, and an elevator was installed in his house 13o. By his mid-sixties, exertional angina and breathlessness limited his ability to travel 13k 11d. Taft berated himself for the poor care he had taken of himself 13k.

By spring 1929, when he was 71, it was widely known that Taft's health was not good. Rumors occasionally arose that he might retire 13p. Sick as he was, Taft desperately wanted to hold his place on the Supreme Court. "I am older and slower and less acute and more confused," he wrote to his brother in November 1929. "However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer in my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control." 13q

Taft finally resigned from the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930. Two doctors issued the the following bulletin: "For some years Chief Justice Taft has had a very high blood pressure, associated with general arteriosclerosis and myocarditis. ... He has no fevers and suffers no pain. His present serious condition is the result of general arteriosclerotic changes" 11b. After lingering in a coma, he died on March 8. MORE

Odds & Ends
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Cited Resources
  1. Anderson, Judith Icke. William Howard Taft: An Intimate History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.0393014622 Libraries 80-27812. ap. ???
  2. Barker, Charles E. With President Taft in the White House. Chicago: A. Kroch and Son, 1947. Libraries. app. 50-51
  3. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.0195029151 Libraries 80-27092. ap. 214
  4. Braisted, William C.; Bell, William Hemphill; Rixey, Presley Marion. The Life Story of Presley Marion Rixey: Surgeon General, U. S. Navy 1902-1910: Biography and Autobiography. Strasburg, VA: Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., 1930. Libraries. ap. 265
    Comment: Rixey was the White House physician for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
  5. Bromley, Michael. Personal communication. Email to Dr. Zebra Sept. 15, 2005.
    Comment: Bromley wrote: "Taft never drove. He always had a driver. His driver in Washington in the Twenties was named Tom Ford." It is not clear, however, when Ford was hired or if he was behind the wheel when this incident occurred.
  6. Bromley, Michael L. William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2003.0786414758 Libraries 2003008595. ap. 350 bp. 183
  7. 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. 172 bp. 167 cp. 168
    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.
  8. Butt, Archibald W. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1930). Volume 1: pages 1-432. Volume 2: pages 433-862. Libraries. ap. 326 bp. 172 cpp. 70,75, 76 dp. 76 ep. 88 fp. 39 gp. 92 hpp. 206-207 ip. 189 jpp. 543 kp. 606 lp. 670 mpp. 764-765
    Comment: Butt, an Army officer, was military aide first to President Theodore Roosevelt and then to President William Taft. On April 14, 1912, Butt was at sea aboard the Titanic returning from a European vacation that Taft had insisted he take. President Taft later said: "When I heard that part of the ship's company had gone down, I gave up hope for the rescue of Major Butt, unless by accident. I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship's deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others." Taft was correct. Butt did not survive the sinking.
  9. Coletta, Paolo E. The Presidency of William Howard Taft. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1973. Libraries. ap. 9
  10. Hicks, F. C. William Howard Taft, Yale Professor of Law & New Haven Citizen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1945. Libraries.
  11. Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1960. Libraries 60-8476. ap. 300 bp. 306 cpp. 306-307 dp. 305
  12. 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. 430
    Comment: Enumerates the ancestors and descendants of American presidents up through Ronald Reagan.
  13. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939. Libraries. ap. 24 bp. 3 cp. 1072 dp. 21 ep. 35 fp. 287 gp. 39 hp. 377 ipp. 781, 784 jp. 854 kp. 1073 lp. 857 mp. 1001 npp. 1074-1078 op. 963 pp. 1044 qp. 967
  14. Ross, Ishbel. An American Family: The Tafts - 1678 to 1964. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1964. Libraries 64-23540. ap. 221 bpp. 327-328 cp. 326 dp. 317 ep. 313 fp. 261
  15. Sargent, Shirley. Yosemite's Famous Guests. Yosemite, CA: Flying Spur Press, 1970. Libraries. app. 20-21
  16. Sotos, JG. Taft and Pickwick: sleep apnea in the White House. Chest. 2003;124:1133-1142.
  17. Taft, Horace Dutton. Memories and Opinions. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Libraries. ap. 7
  18. Taft, Mrs. William Howard (Helen Herron Taft). Recollections of Full Years. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1914. Libraries. ap. 365
  19. Taft, William Howard. Papers of William Howard Taft. On file in the Library of Congress and selected other research libraries. Libraries. aWHT to Charles P. Taft, August 31, 1908 bWHT to Helen Herron Taft, September 24, 1905 cWHT to Helen Herron Taft, June 15, 1907 dWHT to N. E. Yorke-Davies, Dec. 9, 1905 eWHT to Helen Herron Taft, May 7, 1908 fWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Sep. 23, 1908 gWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Sept. 27, 1909 hWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 3, 1909 iWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 10, 1909 jWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 24, 1909 kWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 28, 1909 lWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 28/29, 1909 mWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 31, 1909 nWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Nov. 2, 1909 oWHT to George Blumer, Jan. 19, 1914 pWHT to Thomas Claytor, Aug. 1, 1926 qWHT to Helen Herron Taft, July 11, 1911 rWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Aug. 1, 1911 sWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Sept. 27, 1911 tWHT to Helen Herron Taft, July 29, 1912 uWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Aug. 16, 1912 vWHT to Helen Herron Taft, August 7, 1917 wWHT to George B. Edwards, September 8, 1917 xWHT to George Blumer, July 11, 1913 yWHT to Annie S. Taft, July 8, 1926 zWHT to Thomas Claytor, August 6, 1924 aaWHT to Thomas Claytor, Sept. 3, 1926 abWHT to George Blumer, Jan. 2, 1923 acCharles D. Norton to WHT, August 16, 1917 adWHT to Helen Herron Taft, Oct. 30, 1911 aeWHT to Helen Herron Taft, February 11, 1902
Other Resources
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