Health and Medical History of President

Martin van Buren

President #8
Lived: 1782-1862 Served: 1837-1841

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

Maladies and Conditions

short, trim, and vain
At age 18 van Buren was 5 feet 6 inches tall (his full adult height). He was trim and slender, and stayed so until almost age 60. There were suspicions that, to maintain an illusion of slimness, he wore a corset after that 1a.

heavy drinker
By age 25 van Buren had a reputation for being able to drink large quantities of alcohol without showing signs of drunkenness. As a result, his nickname was "Blue Whiskey Van." His heavy drinking seems to have persisted even into the Vice Presidency (1833-1837) 1a.

bald and short
van Buren's height and hairline were mocked in the 1840 presidential campaign in which his opponent, "Old Tip," was William Henry Harrison:

Old Tip he wears a homespun suit,
   He has no ruffled shirt -- wirt, wirt;
But Mat he has the golden pate,
   And he's a little squirt -- wirt, wirt. 3a:

snored
Reliability of this information is uncertain. 2 However, given van Buren's alcohol use and obesity, it would be surprising only if he did not snore.

colds, etc.
As Vice President, Van Buren did not enjoy presiding over the Senate. It has been speculated that the more-frequent-than-usual colds and other ailments he suffered during this period, which often drove him into bed for short periods, may have been an escape 1a.

"influenza"
Van Buren was ill for several weeks in summer 1834, and again in late September that year, with an illness he called "influenza" 1a.

nervous indigestion
Van Buren's first year in office (1837) was especially trying. He developed dyspepsia (apparently not for the first time in association with stress), which he treated with water, soot, and powdered charcoal 1b. (Bumgarner notes that powdered charcoal was used to treat gas even into recent years 1b.) By summer 1838 he had lost weight, was pale, and still looked worried 1b. Gout also plagued him.

gout
Van Buren developed gout sometime in the 1830s (his 50s), aided, no doubt, by his dietary habits and wine consumption. He suffered greatly from the disease in summer 1838. During summer 1840, a stay at White Sulfur Springs (a spa in New York state) helped his gout, at least temporarily 1b.

Thirteen years later (at age 71) van Buren went to Aix-les-Bains, France for gout treatment, attending the same spa that had botched the treatment of Thomas Jefferson's fractured wrist decades earlier. Van Buren apparently had a better experience 1b.


asthma
Asthma afflicted van Buren for several months in 1860. It recurred to a severe degree in fall 1861 1c. It is not clear to me whether he had experienced the disorder earlier. Also, see caveats below.

circulatory failure
In early 1862 van Buren was attended by the noted physician Dr. Alonzo Clark in New York ?City, presumably for "asthma." Van Buren returned to his upstate home in May 1862. He was weak and largely bedbound. He developed signs of circulatory failure, such as cold and clammy skin, in mid-July. On July 21 he became comatose, and died three days later, age 79 1b.

Comment: The details of van Buren's asthma and final illness are unsatisfying. Too much stock should not be placed in the diagnosis of "asthma." It is probably better to say only that Van Buren had a condition that caused episodes of dyspnea. While it may have been true asthma, it may also have been cardiac asthma. Given van Buren's obesity and snoring, the possibility of heart failure owing to sleep apnea should not be dismissed.

Odds & Ends
Resources
Widmer
24 reviews
Niven
14 reviews
Wilson
4 reviews
 
Silbey
7 reviews
 
Cole
1 review
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. 56 bp. 57 cpp. 57-58 dp. 58
    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. 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."
  3. James, Marquis. Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, unknown year (originally published in 1937 by Bobbs-Merrill). Libraries. ap. 450
  4. 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. 184
    Comment: Enumerates the ancestors and descendants of American presidents up through Ronald Reagan.
Other Resources
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