Presidential Health: Secrets, Surprises, and Controversies

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


August 14, 2017

Whiskey and Cigars

Figure 1. Ulysses S. Grant. Image from iStock.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), our 18th president, helped secure victory for the Union forces in the Civil war. A graduate of West Point, Grant had resigned from the military in 1854 but rejoined before the Civil War, rising to the rank of General, where his aggressive military actions proved decisive. At the time of the Civil War, the average annual per capita alcohol consumption in the United States was more than twice as high as current estimates.[1] Grant was known as a heavy drinker; Lincoln, who was aware of Grant's drinking, commented: "Find out what whiskey he drinks and send all of my generals a case, if it will get the same results."[2] Grant also smoked cigars. The combination of these two environmental exposures is a strong risk factor for cancer of the oropharynx—a tumor Grant developed and which was eventually responsible for his death.[3] Sadly, during his final illness, Grant had few financial resources to rely upon. When the famous and wealthy publisher Mark Twain found out about Grant's financial problem, he encouraged and helped Grant publish his memoirs, which provided much needed income for his widow Julia.


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