William Howard Taft: Cardiovascular Decline


wearing out
 
In his fifties Taft developed signs of "hardening of the arteries" accompanied by a rising blood pressure 1a 2a. His exercise tolerance decreased, and an elevator was installed in his house 3a. By his mid-sixties, exertional angina and breathlessness limited his ability to travel 3b 1a. Taft berated himself for the poor care he had taken of himself 3b.

By spring 1929, when he was 71, it was widely known that Taft's health was not good. Rumors occasionally arose that he might retire 3c. Sick as he was, Taft desperately wanted to hold his place on the Supreme Court. "I am older and slower and less acute and more confused," he wrote to his brother in November 1929. "However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer in my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control." 3d

Taft finally resigned from the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930. Two doctors issued the the following bulletin: "For some years Chief Justice Taft has had a very high blood pressure, associated with general arteriosclerosis and myocarditis. ... He has no fevers and suffers no pain. His present serious condition is the result of general arteriosclerotic changes" 1b. After lingering in a coma, he died on March 8. SEE BELOW


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The following passages from Pringle and Marx detail Taft's cardiovascular decline:
In his fifties Taft developed signs of hardening of the arteries accompanied by a rising blood pressure 1a.

[Improvements to his house included] an elevator to Taft's study on the top floor. [Pringle is unclear when this was installed.] For his health was to fail more or less steadily and extreme exertion had to be avoided. [Taft to brother Sept. 13, 1921] 3a

Far worse were digestive disturbances a year later which affected his heart and made it impossible, in February, 1924, for him to attend the funeral of President Wilson. "The truth is," he wrote, "I have had a pretty close call to a breakdown. ... I cannot do all the work there is to do. I was treating myself as I might have ... thirty years ago. There is no fool like an old fool." The Chief Justice was inclined to berate himself for not having taken care in time. Looking back over life, he said, "I think I have been just what I have been -- a damn fool in many ways ... I have thought ... that my strength was equal to anything, and I have found that it was not." 3b

[Marx believes the "digestive disturbances" were] most likely symptoms of narrowing of the coronary arteries of the heart. He developed the "effort syndrome" -- pain in the chest, shortness of breath and heart consciousness after physical exertion, typical for angina pectoris 1a.

The heart attacks continued and he reluctantly concluded, as the court adjourned in May, 1924, that a projected trip to England would have to be cancelled, that he could not even go to commencement at Yale. 3b

"I have had a serious warning of the hard use to which I have [start page 1072] put my body," he said, "and am now obliged to take great care of myself to enable me to compass the judicial duties I have assumed. My heart has a great burden to carry and has given symptoms that I hearken to." [Taft to Mrs. Bellamy Storer, Aug. 8, 1927] 3e

His health grew worse, not better. "I am really in an invalid state," he reported in the spring of 1928. His blood pressure was high. The possibility that his arteries were hardening alarmed him. 3f

... by the spring of 1929. It was widely known that Taft's health was not too good and rumors occasionally arose that he might retire. ... [In May of that year] Taft said nothing publicly, of course. ... Safety and the preservation of a conservative majority in the court became an obsession with Taft as the final days approached. The most he could hope for, he wrote Justice Butler in the fall of 1929, "is continued life of enough of the present membership ... to prevent disastrous reversals of our present attitude." 3c

He had been in the hospital for a time before leaving for Murray Bay that summer, and was confined to the house most of the time. [Taft to brother 6/7/29] The Chief Justice was tired as well as ill. 3f

Ominous signs in the summer of 1929 pointed to the danger that the end was not far off or that, at best, he could not continue with his work on the court. ... "The truth is that I have been sick for nearly a month and I haven't been able to do any work." [Taft to Justice Sanford, 7/4/29] 3f

"I am older and slower and less acute and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer in my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control." [Taft to brother, Nov. 14, 1929] 3d

[When Taft resigned from the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930...] Two doctors issued the the following bulletin: "For some years Chief Justice Taft has had a very high blood pressure, associated with general arteriosclerosis and myocarditis. Together with these conditions he had a chronic cystitis. He has no fevers and suffers no pain. His present serious condition is the result of general arteriosclerotic changes" 1b.

For days the patient lay unconscious and could be aroused only with difficulty to swallow a few sips. The doctors tried to prolong the vegetative processes of living by administration of sugar solutions by rectum and intravenously. 1c INTRAVENOUS THERAPY IN 1930? WAS THIS EXPERIMENTAL?

Cited Sources
  1. Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1960.
        
    a  p.305  b  p.306  c  pp.306-307

    Comment: Tells great tales, but the book does not cite its sources.

  2. Ross, Ishbel. An American Family: The Tafts - 1678 to 1964. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1964.
        
    a  p.317
  3. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
        
    a  p.963  b  p.1073  c  p.1044  d  p.967  e  pp.1071-1072  f  p.1077

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