5 Presidents Who Had Secret Health Problems

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Republicans just can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s cough. Every time Clinton has a coughing spell, they make grave speculations about the Democratic nominee’s health. They even claim she’s hiding a serious medical condition. Their conclusion: She is too sick to be president. Some people think this wild speculation about a candidate’s health is another sign that U.S. politics have become more mean-spirited. Yet such talk has been common in election years. And as it turns out, a number of presidents did have serious health issues they hid from the public before the election. Others were fine when they entered office but developed serious medical conditions that were kept secret.


5. Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland had secret surgery to remove a tumor in his mouth.

Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, had just entered office for his second term in 1893 when he noticed a strange bump in his mouth. After doctors diagnosed it as cancer, an extraordinary cover-up began. Cleveland announced he was going on a four-day fishing trip from New York to Cape Cod. While aboard a friend’s yacht, Cleveland underwent extensive oral surgery. A medial team removed the tumor, along with five teeth and part of his upper jawbone. It’s remarkable to think that the surgeons could perform such extensive surgery aboard a small boat at sea, but they did such a good job Cleveland’s disfigurement was unnoticeable.

Perhaps inevitably, however, someone talked. A couple of months later, a Philadelphia reporter wrote a story about the president’s cancer and the clandestine surgery. The White House vigorously denied the story, and went all out to discredit the reporter. Almost 25 years later, one of the doctors who performed the surgery finally came forward with the truth to vindicate the reporter’s reputation.


4. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Jr., claims he saw signs of his father’s dementia while he served as president.

Liberal critics often questioned Reagan’s mental acuity while in office, seizing on every slight misstep (Reagan reportedly fell asleep in a meeting!) to suggest the elderly president was senile. But when Reagan confirmed just five years after leaving office that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, observers began re-examining his presidency to look for signs he’d had the disease in office. All four of Reagan’s White House physicians have maintained they never saw a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s. However, Reagan’s son, Ron Jr., created a controversy in 2011 when he claimed that he saw signs of his father’s dementia midway through his presidency. Ron Jr.’s half-brother, Michael Reagan, said that was patently false and that Ron Jr. was “an embarrassment to his father.”


3. John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy repeatedly denied he suffered from a serious medical condition known as Addison’s disease.

JFK became the youngest president ever to take office when he entered the White House at age 43. But despite his youthful appearance and good looks, he suffered from several illnesses, including a life-threatening condition he openly lied about before his election. In 1947, doctors diagnosed Kennedy with Addison’s disease, an incurable disorder of the adrenal glands that can be life-threatening. Kennedy battled the condition by taking cortisone and other hormones. Yet during the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy repeatedly denied he had the condition. There’s no way to know how or if Addison’s affected Kennedy during his short presidency. But in 1992, two pathologists present at JFK’s autopsy broke their long vow of silence and told a medical journal the president’s adrenal glands were almost completely destroyed, a sign of long-term Addison’s disease. JFK’s failure to disclose the condition likely influenced the 1960 election, in which he defeated Richard Nixon by a scant 112,000 votes in the popular vote.

Kennedy also had other hidden health issues. He suffered from colitis, as well as osteoporosis that made it extremely painful at times to even put on his shoes and socks. As a result of those conditions, he developed a dependency on painkillers and stimulants.


2. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, holds a paper steady so her husband can sign it. A stroke left him paralyzed on his left side.

Wilson suffered a series of strokes beginning years before he assumed the presidency in 1913. One left him unable to write for months. Another left him nearly blind in his left eye.
But Wilson suffered a major stroke in 1919, which left him paralyzed on his left side. Incredibly, while top government leaders knew of his condition, Wilson managed to keep his health crisis a secret from the American public for several months; his wife, Edith, served as assistant for the bedridden president, in the words of one politician, acting as “presidentress.” Wilson’s situation eventually influenced the passage of the 25th Amendment, which specifies the vice president’s succession in the event of a president’s death, disability or resignation.


1. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, and also may have had serious genetic disorders.

Lincoln battled depression throughout his life, a condition so severe it would almost certainly be a liability if he ran for president today. But Lincoln might have had other ailments while in office. One published study in 2007 claimed that Lincoln suffered from smallpox at the time he gave the Gettysburg Address, and was very ill for several weeks. The researchers believe that Lincoln’s doctors downplayed the severity of the illness because news he was sick might have affected the Civil War’s outcome.

Some researchers have speculated for years that Lincoln had the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome, which affects connective tissue in the body, and can be life-threatening. Victims often have a tall, gaunt appearance. That theory has been mostly discounted. A few years ago, however, Dr. John Sotos of California claimed that Lincoln suffered from another genetic disease, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B. The disorder almost inevitably leads to thyroid cancer if untreated. Dr. Sotos speculates that, based on Lincoln’s increasingly frail appearance, he might have been dying of cancer when he was assassinated. However, Sotos’ request in 2009 to test some of Lincoln’s DNA left on the pillow he last used was denied by the museum that holds the relic.


One More: Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson had numerous health issues.

The seventh president’s nickname, Old Hickory, suggests a stout, healthy individual, but Jackson suffered numerous maladies when he entered office at age 61. He had chronic pain from bullet wounds suffered in a pair of duels. According to Healthline.com, he also suffered from chronic headaches, rotting teeth, bleeding in his lungs and internal infection. He lived another eight years after leaving office, dying at age 78.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.