Presidential Health: Secrets, Surprises, and Controversies

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


August 14, 2017

A Little Known Infection

Figure 2. Abraham Lincoln. Image from iStock.

Although most medical reports have focused on Lincoln's assassination in 1865, his bout 2 years earlier of what was presumably smallpox is relatively unknown. Lincoln developed a serious febrile illness in 1863 at the time he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The illness lasted a few weeks and included weakness, headaches, back pain, and a widespread vesicular rash. The signs and symptoms suggest smallpox as the most likely diagnosis,[4] especially because when Lincoln became ill, the city of Washington was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic which killed many citizens, including Lincoln's servant, William Johnson. Although vaccination, attributed to Edward Jenner, had become available at the end of the 18th century, it is uncertain whether Lincoln had been vaccinated. In addition to Lincoln, two other presidents contracted smallpox: George Washington and Andrew Jackson.


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