Health and Medical History of President

Warren Harding

President #29
Lived: 1865-1923 Served: 1921-1923

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

The most striking fact about the illness was the almost total exhaustion. As he said to me, he "had no idea that a man could be so completely exhausted." 10a

UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Maladies and Conditions

race
Questions about African-American ancestor(s) raised during the campaign????

nervous breakdowns?
Between 1889 and 1901, Harding paid five "protracted" visits to the J. P. Kellogg sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan "to recover from fatigue, overstrain, and nervous illnesses." 4

mumps orchitis
As a boy, Harding had a "severe attack of mumps with swelling of the testicles" 7a.

minor ails
Harding's father was a homeopathic practitioner who attended to most of Harding's minor medical needs. Correspondence between Harding and another homeopath, later White House physician Dr. Charles Sawyer, shows that Senator Harding was treated for "nasal allergy" and dermatitis in 1916-1917. 4

aphasia?
The writer H.L. Mencken thought Harding's English, or "Gamalielese," was the worst he ever saw 1a:
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm... of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
On the off chance that Mencken was not exaggerating, this raises the question of whether Harding had some type of mild aphasia.

mastoid surgery
Underwent mastoid surgery in 1901 because of "ear trouble" 7b.

sterile? no
In her book, The President's Daughter 2, one Nan Britton claimed she had borne Harding's daughter. Although scholars now accept her story (in part because of similar "ear structure" in Harding and the daughter) 7c, there was enormous controversy when the book appeared in 1927. Harding was then four years dead. His stalwarts claimed Harding was sterile as a consequence of mumps orchitis in childhood 7d. Doctors in Battle Creek concurred, citing Harding's childless marriage 7e.

hypertension + diabetes
In mid- to late 1919, Harding was still insisting privately that he had no ambitions to be President. His blood pressure was 185 and there were traces of sugar in his urine, he told one colleague, and he did not want the burden of being President. 7f

tobacco habits
Harding "used tobacco in all forms... two cigars a day, interspersed with a pipe and an occasional cigarette." He also chewed tobacco. 4

suspected heart disease
By early 1919, Dr. Sawyer began to suspect that Harding had some sort of heart ailment 4. Bumgarner states, but does not support, that "It is apparent that Harding had significant symptoms related to his heart over at least a 25-year period before he died in 1923" 3a.

In 1918, Harding "was still troubled by his health, physical and mental. He put on weight -- he was over two hundred pounds now -- and for all his golfing, his breath grew shorter. His heart trouble was real enough. 'I had a serious spell of it covering a period of two or three years,' he wrote.... 'As a matter of fact, I have never gotten wholly free of it'" 7g.


signs of heart disease
By 1922, signs of heart disease were increasing. Harding was more easily exhausted and had transient chest pains. "A White House valet described how Harding was forced to sleep with his head propped up by several pillows, a sign of congestive heart failure" 4. Harding's exhaustion compares with his earlier attitude toward sleep, observed by the chief usher of the White House 5a:
He was never in bed before midnight and more often it was one or two o'clock. He was always up at eight, and when it was suggested to him that he should lie abed in the morning he answered, "No, it is too much like a woman." Sometimes he would go to his office, lie down on the couch, and sleep.

influenza?
In January 1923 Harding had a protracted, enervating gastrointestinal digestive illness that was diagnosed as influenza. 4 (Given that abdominal complaints appeared during the later stages of Harding's cardiac disease, one wonders if this episode could have been abdominal angina.)

infarct
Harding's final illness occured during an extended trip to the West in summer 1923.

After playing six holes of golf in Vancouver, Canada, Harding became so tired that, to quell any suspicions, he moved to the 17th hole, then finished the 18th. He later called for White House homeopath Sawyer, complaining of nausea and pain in the upper abdomen. Sawyer found the President had a pulse of 120 beats per minute and was breathing 40 times per minute. (Both of these readings are abnormally high.) "Intensive cardiac therapy including digitalis was started." 4

Harding died suddenly and unexpectedly in his bed in a San Francisco hotel room several days later, on August 2, 1923. Mrs. Harding refused permission for an autopsy. 4 (It is often supposed that Harding died of an acute myocardial infarction, that is, a " heart attack" or "coronary occlusion." However, this should not be supposed merely because he died suddenly. Harding clearly had heart failure (recall the valet's statement), and persons with heart failure are prone to sudden death as well.)

His physician diagnosed Harding's fatal myocardial infarct as crab meat poisoning. 6a Lyman Wilbur forecast his death 10 MORE as did Emmanuel Libman 3b.

Odds & Ends
Resources
 
Pietrusza
65 reviews
Dean
37 reviews
 
Russell
15 reviews
Murray
7 reviews
 
Ferrell
5 reviews
Trani
3 reviews
Cited Resources
  1. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.0195029151 Libraries 80-27092. ap. 229
  2. Britton, Nan. The President's Daughter. New York: Elizabeth Ann Guild, Inc., 1927. Libraries 30007386.
    Comment: Author claims that Harding fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter with her in 1919, while he was a member of the Senate.
  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. 189 bpp. 190, 191
    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. Deppisch, LM. Homeopathic medicine and presidential health: homeopathic influences upon two Ohio presidents. Pharos. Fall 1997;60:5-10. Pubmed 9385827.
    Comment: Discusses the relationships of Garfield and Harding with homeopathy. Also reprints a Currier & Ives drawing of "The Death of General James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States."
  5. Hoover, Irwin Hood (Ike). 42 Years in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934. Libraries. ap. 268
    Comment: The Library of Congress contains more of Hoover's first-hand recollections of eight presidents.
  6. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.0918535018 Libraries 87-81241. ap. 5
  7. Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Libraries 68-29916. ap. 311 bp. 138 cpp. 669 dpp. 642 epp. 311n fpp. 331-332 gp. 301 hpp. 317-318 ipp. 317 jpp. 310-311 kpp. 323
  8. Smith, Ira R. T.; Morris, Joe Alex. "Dear Mr. President:" The Story of Fifty Years in the White House Mail Room. New York: Julian Messner, 1949. Libraries. ap. 115
    Comment: Ira Smith was a peppery fellow who ran the White House mail room from 1897 to 1948. He started working during the administration of William McKinley and was the only mail room staffer until the volume of mail made it necessary to hire help during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
  9. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938. Libraries. app. 22, 81
    Comment: Stoddard was editor and owner of the New York Evening Mail from 1900 to 1925.
  10. Wilbur, Ray Lyman; with Robinson, Edgar Eugene and Edwards, Paul Carroll (eds.). The Memoirs of Ray Lyman Wilbur 1875-1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960. Libraries. ap. 380
Other Resources
Alternate index terms: Warren Gamaliel Harding
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