Health and Medical History of President

John Kennedy: Medication Effects

Back to President John Kennedy

psycho-active poly-pharmacy
During the first six months of his presidency, Kennedy's physicians "administered large doses of so many drugs that [Dr. Janet] Travell kept a `Medicine Administration Record'" 2a. Many of the drugs Kennedy received affect thinking:
cortisone[injected] Cortisol has profound psychological effects. At one extreme, "steroid psychosis" can result. At the other, a profound sensation of well-being can occur. In between, the effects are more difficult to characterize.
cortisone[oral]
lomotilFor diarrhea. Contains anti-cholinergic compounds, which, in toxic doses, can make someone "mad as a hatter."
paregoricFor diarrhea. Contains opium. Mentation is probably unaffected if used in reasonable doses, but Kenndey was taking at least 3 medications for diarrhea, suggesting that doses were high.
phenobarbitalA classic "downer"
testosteroneWas Kennedy's "bull-like" libido a side effect of testosterone? Was his cholesterol level of 410?
trasentineAn anti-diarrhea medication. There is very little published about this drug. Side effects include giddiness and euphoria.
TuinalA mixture of secobarbital and amobarbital Kennedy used to help him sleep. Amobarbital is better known as Amytal, one of the more common "truth serum" drugs.
amphetaminesPost and Robins, writing in 1993, thought it was "highly suggestive" that Kennedy took amphetamines while President, but considered it unproven 3a. The recent Atlantic article states definitively that Kennedy received injections of amphetamines and painkillers from "Dr. Feelgood," a.k.a. Max Jacobson 2a. Kennedy dismissed concerns about the injections, saying, "I don't care if it's horse piss. It works." Jacobson's medical license was revoked in 1975. Previously, in 1969, all controlled substances in his possession were confiscated by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs 3a. It is thought that Kennedy was under the influence of amphetamines when he made his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech 3a.

To put things in a different light, if an officer in the U.S. Air Force were taking any one of these medications, he or she would not even be allowed to talk on the radio to aircraft as supervisor of flying. Kennedy, as commander-in-chief, was supervisor for the entire Air Force.

Question: Did the Bay of Pigs result from Kennedy talking, or was it the testosterone talking? BELOW


More...
Professor Dallek concludes his article with:
There is no evidence that JFK's physical torments played any significant part in shaping the successes or shortcomings of his public actions, either before or during his presidency. Prescribed medicines and the program of exercises begun in the fall of 1961, combined with his intelligence, knowledge of history, and determination to manage presidential challenges, allowed him to address potentially disastrous problems sensibly. His presidency was not without failings (the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and his slowness to act on civil rights were glaring lapses of judgement), but they were not the result of any physical or emotional impairment. 1a
Let's look at this claim in detail.
The first issue is whether Kennedy "felt" any psychological effect from his medications. The answer is clearly yes. He felt Dr. Feelgood's pep pills and amphetamine injections 1b.

He felt the cortisone, too. Before press conferences and televised speeches, Kennedy's doctors increased his cortisone dose to ~ help him handle the associated stress 1b. This is very troubling. There ~ is certainly no untoward physical stress associated with talking to reporters or cameras. Thus, ~ we can presume he needed extra cortisone to deal with the psychological stress of such events. ~ The psychological stress involved in such events, however, must pale in comparison to the stress ~ of deciding whether to end civilization in the Cuban Missle Crisis, whether to invade Cuba, or ~ what to do with American and Soviet tanks separated by 100 yards in Berlin, loaded, and with ~ their muzzles pointed at each other. Did he call for extra cortisone then? And if he did, what ~ is the right dose to give? Do Berlin and Cuba decisions warrant a higher dose than Viet Nam decisions?


Next, let's examine Dallek's conclusions one piece at a time.
There is no evidence that JFK's physical torments played any significant part in shaping the successes or shortcomings of his public actions, either before or during his presidency.
Point 1: This is classic disingenuation. Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

Point 2: Dallek does not consider whether Kennedy's medications may have played a role.


Prescribed medicines and the program of exercises begun in the fall of 1961, combined with his intelligence, knowledge of history, and determination to manage presidential challenges, allowed him to address potentially disastrous problems sensibly.
Point 1: The majority of this sentence may be translated as: "Kennedy meant well."

Point 2: Dallek does not consider that Kennedy's intelligence, knowledge, and determination may have been compromised by his medical condition or his medications (and drugs).


His presidency was not without failings (the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and his slowness to act on civil rights were glaring lapses of judgement), but they were not the result of any physical or emotional impairment.
Again, Dallek takes medications and drugs out of the equation.

The Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in April 1961. At this time in Kennedy's administration, he was under the maximal influence of Dr. Feelgood and subjected to maximal polypharmacy. It seems cavalier to dismiss a "glaring lapse of judgment" from a man with "intelligence, knowledge, and determination" as not being influenced by a daily physical and mental assault.

In fact, the answer is probably unknowable. Absent an insightful realization and confession by Kennedy himself, there is no real way to prove that Kennedy's decisions on any particular day or in any particular month were influenced by medicines or by medical condition. By the same reasoning, it is impossible to prove that Kennedy's decisions were not affected.


In the fall of 1961, Dr. Burkley insisted that Kennedy's treatment be fundamentally altered. This ultimately led to a diminution ~ (not elimination) of medications Kennedy took, including the elimination of Dr. Feelgood's ministrations 1. We who live after the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) may have Dr. Burkley to thank for allowing Kennedy to make his civilization-saving decisions with a clear(er) head.
Resources
Cited Resources
  1. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.0316172383 Libraries 2002116388. ap. 61 bp. 60
  2. Dallek, Robert. The medical ordeals of JFK. Atlantic Monthly. 2002 (Dec);290(5):49-61. ap. 60
  3. Post, Jerrold M. and Robins, Robert S. When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Dilemma of the Captive King. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.0300063148 Libraries 92-25302. app. 69-70
    Comment: At one time Post worked for the CIA, profiling foreign leaders.
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