Health and Medical History of President

Harry Truman

President #33
Lived: 1884-1972 Served: 1945-1953

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

"Truman had very few health problems in his lifetime -- mostly minor. [But] he had a tendency to ignore his illness until it either went away, or floored him. 1a

Maladies and Conditions

diphtheria
Truman developed diphtheria in 1894 at age 10. He was paralyzed for several months and had to be wheeled around in a baby carriage. Diphtheria antitoxin was unavailable then, so he was treated with ipecac and whiskey. He developed a severe distaste for both. 1b

farsightedness
As a child, Truman was diagnosed with a rare eye problem, "flat eyeballs." He wore thick glasses beginning at age eight, after his mother noticed he was able to see the large print in the family Bible, but unable to see objects at a distance. It has been said that Truman was far-sighted (which fits with the flat eyeballs diagnosis) 1b, but this pattern of visual acuity is characteristic of near-sightedness.

The issue is interesting because one possible cause of far-sightedness in young people is diphtheria. Diphtheria can paralyze the ciliary muscle, the muscle that allows the eye to focus close in.

Most biographers say Truman wore glasses before he contracted diphtheria. But Truman's son-in-law states that the diphtheria attack left him with the eye problem. 1c

Whatever the true nature and cause of Truman's visual impairment, his hopes as a high school student of entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were dashed by his poor eyesight. 1c


childhood accidents
(1) Broke his collar bone when he fell out of a chair while combing his hair. (2) Avulsed the end of his big toe by slamming a door on it. The family doctor reattached it using a coating of iodoform. (3) Nearly asphyxiated on a peach pit lodged in his throat. His mother saved his life by quick thinking and quick action: she pushed the peach pit down his throat with her finger. 1c

car accident
While a Congressman in 1938, a car smashed into Truman's as he drove through an intersection. The other driver did not see the stop sign at the intersection because it was blocked by a parked car. Truman's car was completely wrecked. Truman's daughter recalled: "It was a miracle that we escaped alive. Dad had a cut over his forehead and Mother had a wrenched back." 1c

Truman's daughter also recalled that Truman always drove too fast. 1c


stress headaches
When he was a judge in Missouri from 1924 to 1934, Truman complained of headaches accompanied by dizziness and sleeplessness. Stress appeared to precipitate and worsen the headaches. Later, as a senator, the headaches returned when he became embroiled in FDR's attempt to pack the Supreme Court. 1d

WW1: horse fall
Truman re-enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1917, at age 33. He was elected an officer and shipped to the front in 1918. Truman was on horseback when, on 29 August, his artillery battery came under German fire. The horse was hit by shrapnel and fell into a shell hole, trapping Truman underneath. He had to be pulled from beneath the horse. About this time, several of the men broke and ran. Truman rallied the remainder "with some salty language he had learned while working on the Sante Fe railroad. The troops were so shocked to hear such language from Truman that they swung into action immediately." 5

In a letter home, Truman wrote that he had learned to sleep with his gas mask on. 5 (perhaps 4) Comment: Was Truman gassed during WW1?


sore throat
In early July 1946 Truman wrote his mother: "Early last week... I cultivated a sore throat and infected ear, but both are all right now. It's the first time I ever had a bad ear. But couldn't let up." 1e

cardiac asthma
Truman's diary entry for March 7, 1947 says: "Doc tell's [sic] me I have Cardiac Asthma! Aint that hell. Well it makes no diff, will go on as before. I've sworn him to secrecy! So What!" 6. Many years later, Truman's physician, Dr. Wallace Graham, recalled: "whenever President Truman would get into tight pinches, or really clutched up, he would have a little bubbling in the lungs, and he would have a little rale [a lung sound often caused by fluid in the lungs] at the base of his lungs" 6. Graham, who admitted he withheld information about Truman's health from the public, used diuretics (fluid pills) to treat the condition, sometimes staying up all night with the coughing Truman 6. MORE

Comment: {#1} "Cardiac asthma" is a little-used term today. It is often equated with pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), but a 1946 cardiology textbook 8a makes a clear distinction, noting that cardiac asthma can occur without pulmonary edema. Cardiac asthma is asthmatic-type breathing ("asthmatic respiration is a particular type of dyspnea") caused by sudden congestion of the pulmonary circulation. There may or may not be interstitial edema. Both cardiac asthma and pulmonary edema are generally considered to be manifestations of heart failure.

Comment: {#2} Cardiac asthma is usually due to a major mechanical malfunction of the heart and can be rapidly fatal. Unless the cause is something reversible, such as uncontrolled hypertension, a person who is having episodes of cardiac asthma will continue to have them. It apparently did not take much to tip Truman into cardiac asthma in 1947. How did he manage to survive for another 25 years? He was not then hypertensive. One wonders if the diagnosis was correct.


smallpox vaccine
In April 1947, health care workers in New York City administered an astonishing 6.35 million smallpox vaccinations in 28 days, prompted by the presence in the city of a single smallpox-infected person (he died). On Sunday, April 20, White House physician Dr. Wallace H. Graham announced that "President Truman's preparations for a three-hour visit to New York the next day had included a brand-new vaccination" 7a 3. Comment: Roueché's use of "brand-new" implies that Truman had been previously vaccinated, which would hardly be surprising for that era.

stress
In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy's attacks had put such a strain on Truman that his wife insisted on a retreat to Florida to recuperate. 1e

intestinal flu
Hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Hospital (Washington, DC) for a short time 1e. David McCullough's biography of Truman mentions "stomach ailments" 6, but I have not checked it to see if the reference is the this episode of digestive illness.

gall bladder
In 1954 Truman had a gall bladder attack while watching a play. He underwent a successful emergency operation. 1f

medication allergy
After his gall bladder operation, Truman received an antibiotic that caused a severe allergic reaction. Truman described having "hives inside and out" and being temporarily unable to keep food down. He recovered in a few days. 1f

hernia operation
He developed abdominal discomfort in 1963. He was operated upon, and recovered uneventfully. 1f

bathroom fall
Truman had fallen on ice during one of his morning walks about a year after his gall bladder operation, with no serious consequences. At age 83, however, he fell in the bathroom. He broke two ribs, cut his forehead, and broke his glasses. 1f

slowing down
By late 1970 Truman's health was declining. His morning walks were less brisk and less frequent. He moved more slowly, read less, and was generally less active. He also had recurrent vertigo and arthritis. 1f

heart failure
In his last year he developed heart failure and pulmonary congestion. He was hospitalized on 5 December 1972. He became comatose the night after Christmas and died on 26 December at 8:50 am. The cause of death was heart failure. 1f
Odds & Ends
Resources
 
McCullough
494 reviews
 
Algeo
145 reviews
Dallek
9 reviews
 
Donald
10 reviews
 
Truman
3 reviews
McCoy
 
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. app. 220, 222 bp. 220 cp. 221 dpp. 221-222 ep. 222 fp. 223
    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. Cooper, L. Gordon. Leap of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.0060194162 Libraries 99086433. ap. 102
  3. Elliott, Victoria Stagg. "People were terrified:" Smallpox 1947. American Medical News. June 23, 2003. Pages 34-35.
  4. Ferrell, Robert H. Dear Bess; The Letters of Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983. Libraries.
  5. Gilwee, William J. ?. Relevance: The Journal of the Great War Society. Vol. 2-4; Spring-Fall 1993.
    Comment: Available on the web at: http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/truman.htm
  6. Huget, Jennifer. The secret heart of Harry Truman: Diary reveals diagnosis of "cardiac asthma": hushed up then, obscure still. Washington Post. July 22, 2003; page HE01.
    Comment: Accessed through washingtonpost.com: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25477-2003Jul21.html There is also a substantially inconsequential correction published the next day: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31867-2003Jul22.html
  7. Roueché, Berton. Eleven Blue Men and Other Narratives of Medical Detection. New York: Berkley Medallion, 14th printing, 1968 (orig. published 1955). Libraries. ap. 108
    Comment: A wonderful book!
  8. White, Paul Dudley. Heart Disease. (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan, 1944; 4th printing May 1946. Libraries. ap. 29
Other Resources
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