Presidential Health: Secrets, Surprises, and Controversies

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


August 14, 2017

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Figure 8. George Washington. Image from Wikimedia.

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, a cold, rainy day, ex-President George Washington became thoroughly soaked and chilled while horseback riding on his Virginia estate. He developed a sore throat that rapidly worsened as well as difficulty breathing; he seemed to almost suffocate at times. Some of the president's physicians attempted to relieve his symptoms with several episodes of blood-letting, removing more than 2 L of blood. This heroic yet dangerous treatment was ineffective, and the patient's condition continued to deteriorate. He died 2 days after the initial onset of symptoms. What caused Washington's rapid death? Although the topic remains controversial, the most likely diagnosis is acute epiglottitis, which even today is a life-threatening disease. Elisha Dick, one of Washington's physicians, was a well-trained 37-year-old who questioned the benefit of phlebotomy and actually suggested tracheotomy.[15] His advice, which might have saved Washington's life, was overruled by a more senior physician.

Suggested Reading

Bumgarner JR. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 From a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press; 1994.

Deppisch LM. The White House Physician: A History From Washington to George W. Bush. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press; 2007.

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