Health and Medical History of President

Franklin Pierce

President #14: 1853-1857
Lived 1804-1869
"The place overshadows him and he is crushed by his great duties and seeks refuge in..." 1a
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Health and Medical History of President

Franklin Pierce

President #14: 1853-1857
Lived 1804-1869
Lived 1804-1869 2023 1776
Revolutionary War
War of 1812
Mexican-American War
Civil War
Spanish-American War
World War 1
World War 2
Korean War
Viet Nam War
Desert Storm
Bush's Wars
"The place overshadows him and he is crushed by his great duties and seeks refuge in..." 1a

Maladies & Conditions  · Small and slight · College character · Sleep schedule · General health · Whooping cough · Bilious fever · alcohol use · Pleurisy · Cold · Excellent memory · horse injury + diarrhea · snored · train accident · depression · Chill and cold · Pneumonia, maybe · alcoholic · malaria · tuberculosis · decline · death

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
Small and slight
At age 16, per a later self-description: "a very small, slight, and apparently frail boy" 2a. In college: "slender, of medium height, with fair complexion and light hair, erect, with a military bearing" 2b.
College character
A lifelong friend and admirer described Pierce in college as "active, and always bright and cheerful. In character he was impulsive, not rash; generous, not lavish; chivalrous, manly, and warm-hearted; and he was one of the most popular students in the whole college" 2b.
Sleep schedule
At age 20: "I make it my rule to retire about 11 o'clock & rise about 5 or 1/2 past 5" 2c.

As a busy attorney his mid-to-late 30s (circa 1842), he was able to sleep anywhere, anytime (day or night), so that an hour's recess in court would allow him to nap and awake refreshed. Colleagues spoke of his "wonderful recuperative powers." 2d. Comment: The unusual comment about recuperative powers suggests that Pierce was doing more than just working hard, i.e. consuming alcohol to excess. Despite its initial soporific effect, alcohol can disrupt sleep in the latter part of the night and thereby leave a person sleepy during the day. It is possible, therefore, that his ability to sleep on demand reflected a high alcohol intake.

General health
At age 20: "fine health" 2e. At age 26 a friend wrestled him: "... had quite a trial of strength in Pierce's room. He is the most powerful man of his size I know of; he laid me on his bed three or four times notwithstanding I used every exertion to prevent him" 2f.
Whooping cough
The mention of "fine health" at age 20 notwithstanding, in that year Pierce experienced "chin cough" 1b -- an old term for whooping cough 3 4 5.
Bilious fever
Had a violent attack of "bilious fever" in July 1832 (age 27). There were transient fears for his life, but he recovered fully by the end of the month. 2g.

The illness recurred in February 1834: "The question for some time was to faint or not to faint -- I at length succeeded in mustering sufficient energy to reach the bell rope & ring up a servant." After taking calomel and other unspecified medications, he recovered quickly 2h.

The term "bilious fever" is no longer used; its meaning is uncertain 1b. It often indicated malaria, but New Hampshire and Maine were free of malaria during Pierce's lifetime 6.

alcohol use
The modern two-volume biography of Pierce does not identify when Pierce's alcohol consumption began exceeding prudent levels. In February 1836 (age 31), Pierce was, in the biographer's words, "liberally plied" with alcohol before arriving at the theater 2i. In 1841 he stopped drinking and became an enthusiastic supporter of the temperance movement 2j. A newspaper attacked him as a drunkard before an election in 1842 2k, but in 1843 he was still making public temperance appearances 2j.

Pierce took a pledge stop drinking before leaving the Senate in 1842, but broke it in Mexico during the war, when he was apart from his wife's puritanical influence. 2l. There is no suggestion that alcohol impaired Pierce's military performance 2m, but during the presidential election campaign of 1852 this did not stop someone from writing a letter to his hometown newspaper calling him "the Hero of Many a well-fought bottle" 2n. Stories of Pierce's drinking persisted throughout the campaign 2o.

As a Congressman in February 1836 Pierce developed pleurisy, with pain in his shoulder and side. His physician, a Dr. Sewall, bled 16 ounces of blood from Pierce, providing some relief, followed a few days later by another 10 ounces. 2p. (There is no reason that bleeding would have improved the inflammation in the chest that is normally the cause of pleurisy.)

By June, Pierce was back home in New Hampshire, engaged in vigorous physical work on his farm 2q.

"Cold and cough" in spring 1842 2d.
Excellent memory
Pierce had an excellent memory. In closing arguments in court, it was not unusual for him to speak eloquently for three or four hours, recalling every fact or statement of testimony 2r. He never forgot the name of anyone he met in court, be they witness or juror, and "was known to cross a street to greet by name a man who had served on a jury ten years before" 2s (a talent William McKinley also had).

Even so, during the 1852 presidential campaign, Pierce's friend and official campaign biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, remarked that "His talents are administrative. ... There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is" 2t.

Pierce recited his 33-minute inaugural speech from memory 2u.

horse injury + diarrhea
During the Mexican-American war, Pierce, a brigadier general, narrowly escaped injury on July 21, 1847 when his hat was shot off 2v.

He was not so lucky at the Battle of Contreras on August 19. Riding his horse at top speed over a rocky lava bed, the horse suddenly reared up (probably startled by the sound of Mexican artillery), throwing Pierce against the pommel of the saddle before stumbling and falling onto him. Pierce was knocked senseless. With intense pain in his groin and a debilitating knee injury, Pierce sat amidst some rocks in the middle of the artillery fire for half an hour, until he could stand. He then hobbled over to an American brigade that was under heavy fire. The brigade surgeon, ^^ "ritchey4pierce"|doc43("Ritchey") ^^ reduced Pierce's dislocated knee and bandaged his pelvis. 2w 1c

Pierce stayed in the field until 9 pm. The fighting had stopped at nightfall, and Pierce now ordered his regiments to withdraw. He took refuge from the rain in the back of an ammunition wagon. 2w.

Orders for the next morning required rapid movement on foot, so Pierce ceded command to his deputy and reported to the commanding general (Winfield Scott) for further orders 2x. Scott later wrote that Pierce "was in such a sick, wounded, and enfeebled condition, that he was `just able to keep his saddle!`" 2y. (Ironically, Pierce and Scott ran against each other for the presidency in 1852.) Scott ordered him to the rear, but Pierce successfully protested and returned to lead his brigade in the next action, which required a 1.5 mile march through corn fields, marshes, and ditches. Pierce, again on horseback, was able to jump several ditches, but when he dismounted to walk over soft terrain, the pain in his knee caused him to pass out after about 300 yards. Pierce once again ceded command, after ordering his men to leave him where he was. His brigade saw heavy action later that day, without him. 2x

Hoisted into his saddle on the 22nd, Pierce rode 2.5 miles to participate in a lengthy meeting that lasted through the night and ended with an armistice agreement. He was then able to rest. 2z By September 12, however, he was prostrate with diarrhea 2aa.

During the 1852 presidential election, his opponents intimated that cowardice caused him to miss battles in the war 7a.

Reliability of this information is uncertain. 8 Given his alcohol intake, it would not be surprising for him to snore.
train accident
Pierce and his wife were in a train accident two months before Pierce's inauguration. They sustained slight physical injuries after their train-car derailed and toppled down a 20-foot embankment into the field below, coming to rest on its roof 2ab 7b.
The same train accident killed the sole surviving child of Franklin and Jane: their 11-year-old son, Benny. Franklin found the body in the wreckage. The back of Benny's head had been torn off by flying debris. Franklin quickly covered the body with his cloak, but not before Jane glimpsed the terrible sight. A witness wrote that her "agony passes beyond any description" 2ac.

Six days later, Franklin wrote Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis): "Mrs. Pierce is more composed today, tho very feeble and crushed to the Earth by the fearful bereavement" 2ad. In the same letter, Pierce wrote: "How shall I be able to summon my manhood and gather up my energies for the duties before me it is hard for me to see" 2ad. (Given Davis' future role, it would be interesting to study whether the tragedy brought Davis and Pierce closer together.)

Two weeks after the accident, Pierce was back at work but with "a fixed expression of sorrow & despondency" 2ae, seeming to be weak and easily manipulated 2af.

The Pierces were shattered and wracked with guilt. Jane decided that God had taken their son so her husband would have no family distractions while President. Franklin believed it was punishment for his sins. The Pierces never really recovered from the tragedy 7b.

In his inaugural address, Pierce said to his listeners (which did not include his wife, as she did not attend the ceremonies): "You have summoned me in my weakness, you must sustain me by your strength" 2ag.

Chill and cold
In late February or early March 1853, Pierce got soaked during a boat crossing in New York harbor, resulting in a cold 2ah.
Pneumonia, maybe
CHECK REFERENCE ON FIRST PARAGRAPH ^^ In summer 1853, Pierce developed a severe respiratory infection while traveling to the world's fair in New York. He experienced pleuritic pain, and spoken words felt like "a pain in his lungs," forcing him to cancel some speeches. He was able to make a long speech in New York, but a storm soaked the subsequent parade... and Pierce. Arriving for another speech later that day, he looked "tired and old." Back in Washington the next day, he took to bed. Around this time he looked "broken and wretched" and one of his friends observed "The place overshadows him and he is crushed by his great duties and seeks refuge in..." suggesting that Pierce was drinking alcohol to excess 1d

Comment: Though called a severe cold, this illness was obviously something more, possibly pneumonia 1e. Alcohol over-use increases the risk of several types of pneumonia.

"Pierce was an alcoholic, as everyone close to him was well aware; a fondness for drink was not something to hide in those times" 9a. At the end of his term, when asked what a President should do after leaving office, he sighed: "There's nothing left... but to get drunk" 7c.

Comment: In view of Pierce's alcohol abuse, it is reasonable to ask whether that had a hand in shaping the disastrous slavery-coddling policies of his presidency, especially given his deep roots in anti-slavery New Hampshire. Certainly, there must have been some effect, but Pierce's anti-anti-slavery attitudes had been formed in the early 1840s, as a result of two factors: (1) It offended him that a moral consideration might supersede the Constitution, and (2) It offended him that anyone who disagreed with abolitionists was labeled a sinner in a manner that amounted to "religious bigotry." 2ai. Pierce personally disdained slavery 2aj.

Chills and fever, most likely malaria, afflicted Pierce in summer 1854, fall 1856, and perhaps episodically until he died. He could certainly have become infected during his time in Mexico. 1f
Pierce had a chronic cough, attributed at the time to the dampness and poor heating in the White House. Tuberculosis has been raised as a possibility because his wife had the condition. 1g One source says thatboth Pierce and his wife had hemoptysis (coughing up blood) -- a classic symptom of tuberculosis 9a.
The death of Pierce's wife in 1863 crushed him. He no longer attempted to curb his alcohol use. His health deteriorated, suffering gastritis, malnutrition, and liver damage. Never before religious, in 1865 he became devout and stopped drinking. But it was too late. He went on to develop weakness, appetite loss, nausea, abdominal pain, and (in November 1866) neuralgia. 1h
In his last months Pierce developed two classic complications of liver cirrhosis: abdominal fluid accumulation ("ascites") and coma. He died in a coma at age 64. 1f
Odds and Ends
Before Presidency
During Presidency
Ampres Series
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Kansas Series
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Signature Series
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Wallner Series
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Cited Sources
  1. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.83. From John W. Forney, who accompanied Pierce to the 1853 New York World's Fair  b  p.80  c  p.82. Pelvic fracture seems unlikely given Pierce's extended time in the saddle after the injury  d  pp.82-83  e  pp.83  f  p.83  g  pp.83-84  h  p.83-84

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  2. Wallner, Peter A. Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son. Concord, NH: Plaidswede Publishing, 2004.
    a  p.17  b  p.23  c  p.28  d  p.98  e  p.29  f  pp.38-39  g  p.46  h  p.49  i  p.62  j  p.107  k  p.96  l  pp.155-156, 217  m  p.155  n  p.206  o  pp.213-214  p  pp.62-63  q  p.64  r  p.100  s  p.99  t  p.215  u  p.252  v  p.140  w  pp.146-147  x  pp.147-148  y  p.226  z  p.149  aa  p.151  ab  p.241  ac  pp.241-242  ad  pp.243  ae  pp.245  af  pp.246  ag  pp.253  ah  p.249  ai  p.92  aj  p.109  ak  pp.73-76  al  pp.15, 98  am  p.137  an  p.80  ao  p.32  ap  p.217
  3. Radbill, Samuel X. Whooping cough in fact and fancy. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 1943; 13 (1): 33-53.   Available on the web at:
  4. Weston, Robert. Whooping Cough: A Brief History to the 19th Century. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. 2012; 29 (2): 329-349.   Available on the web at:
  5. T. E. C. "Whooping Cough is First Described as a Disease Sui Generis by Baillou in 1640". Pediatrics. 1970, 46 (4) 522.   Available on the web at:

    Comment: "Chincough" is not an anatomical term. It instead comes from "Quintana" -- thought to indicate a cough occurring at 5-hour intervals.

  6. Adams, J. F. A. Malaria in New England. Public Health Papers and Reports. 1881; 7: 168-173.   Available on the web at:

    Comment: One would have to review Pierce's complete travel history to determine that he was never in a malaria zone before going to Mexico.

  7. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
    a  p.114  b  p.115  c  p.116
  8. Dugan, James. Bedlam in the boudoir. Colliers. 22 Feb. 1947; pages 17, 69-70.

    Comment: Credibility is dubious. Just before a list of Presidents, the article states: "Twenty of the 32 Presidents ... are proved or believed on a thick web of circumstance to have been nocturnal nuisances in the White House."

  9. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.
    a  p.19
  10. Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (ed). Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America. 2nd ed. London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1981.
    a  p.265

    Comment: Maps -- in great detail -- the ancestors and descendants of American presidents through Ronald Reagan. They would have had an exhausting time with President Obama's family tree! MORE

Other Sources
Pubmed Search   (1 match when checked in March 2013)

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