Health and Medical History of President

Woodrow Wilson

President #28: 1915-1921
Lived 1856-1924
"Part of the truth will always elude searchers, for several persons concerned labored to distort or befog it." -- Allan Nevins 1a
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Health and Medical History of President

Woodrow Wilson

President #28: 1915-1921
Lived 1856-1924
Lived 1856-1924 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
"Part of the truth will always elude searchers, for several persons concerned labored to distort or befog it." -- Allan Nevins 1a

Maladies & Conditions  · late reader · eye twitches · eyeglasses habit · atherosclerosis · terrible teeth · stroke #1 · stroke #2 · stroke #3 · cerebro-vascular events #4,5,6 · cerebro-vascular events #7,8 · cold · no seasickness · workload · influenza + cerebral event · hypertensive headaches? · pre-stroke · stroke · sanity? · complicity · appearance

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
late reader
Wilson did not learn the alphabet until he was 9 years old, and could not read until he was 12. This raises the possibility he had a learning disability, perhaps similar to dyslexia 2. Wilson eventually earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and became President of Princeton.
eye twitches
eyeglasses habit
Wilson had an annoying habit of busily polishing his eyeglasses while people were talking to him 4a.
His physician missed the signs of Wilson's atherosclerosis before becoming president. 3b
terrible teeth
A photograph of Wilson on the day of his 1913 inauguration shows astonishingly bad teeth [see photo MORE].

Comment: This is relevant to Wilson's later stroke(s) because poor dentition has been suspected to increase the risk of atherosclerotic disease.

stroke #1
Dr. E. A. Weinstein has carefully analyzed Wilson's medical history in a book 5. He finds evidence of multiple strokes.

Wilson's first stroke was in May 1896. It caused marked weakness of the right upper limb plus sensory disturbances in the fingers. The finger problems were mis-diagnosed as neuritis. Wilson was unable to write normally for almost a year afterwards. Comment: There may be some dispute about this event, in a later article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

stroke #2
In June 1904 Wilson developed weakness in the right upper limb that lasted for several months 5.
stroke #3
On May 28, 1906, Wilson suddenly lost vision in his left eye. This persisted. Weakness of the right upper limb was present 5.
cerebro-vascular events #4,5,6
Wilson had multiple other neurological events that were presumably vascular in origin 5:
  • November 1907 -- Developed weakness and numbness of fingers or right upper limb that lasted several months;
  • July 1908 -- Two attacks of "neuritis" affecting the right upper limb;
  • December 1910 -- Transitory weakness of the right hand.
cerebro-vascular events #7,8
Wilson's problems with blood circulation in his brain and eyes continued after he became President 5:
  • April 1913 -- Attack of "neuritis" involving right upper limb;
  • May 1914 -- Abnormal retinal arteries observed;
  • May-Sept. 1915 -- Episodes of transient weakness in his right hand.
On what must have been a slow news day, the President's cold was front-page news in the New York Times on Dec. 12, 1913 6 MORE -- underneath a story about the 70-pound weight loss achieved by former President William Taft.
no seasickness
Circa 1915 Wilson and his party, aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower on the Chesapeake Bay, encountered a large storm. "Everyone except President Wilson and one sailor got sick" 7a.
Before the 1917 entry of the United States into World War I, Wilson appeared to have some measure of free time, sometimes playing solitaire 7b and even courting and marrying for a second time. With the war, however, Wilson's work day started at dawn and the effort began to show on him 7c.
influenza + cerebral event
In Paris for peace talks after the end of World War I, on April 3, 1919 Wilson's voice was husky all day. By evening he could scarcely talk, had a temperature of 103 degrees F, and had coughing fits so violent and severe that it took his breath away. His physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, initially thought Wilson had been poisoned. Rumors spread of deliberate infection with germs planted in his drinking water's ice. 1b

Dr. Grayson sat up with Wilson all night. Vomiting and diarrhea developed. The fever did not break. Wilson could not sleep, which was unusual for him. Grayson decided it was influenza. The President stayed in bed the next day and from there even held meetings with rulers who braved the sick room. 1b

A night of burning fever followed, after which Grayson and Mrs. Wilson forbade all work. Wilson then slept for three days, fitfully. 1c

He awoke a subtly changed man. He suspected the French servants were spying. He worried that furnishings were being stolen. He scrutinized his delegation's use of automobiles to make sure they were used only for official purposes -- he had previously encouraged the cooped-up staff to take them for relaxing drives and trips. With his physician, he rearranged furnishings in his room. He suspected his closest aide of trying to subvert him. He was dour, secretive, impatient, and petulant, yet continued to do brilliant work. 1d

Comment: What happened to Wilson's cognition? Possibilities include a stroke-like event or encephalitis (brain inflammation) from what appears to have been an infection with the fearsome 1918 influenza virus. No matter what the cause, this change in Wilson has come to be viewed as an inciting event for World War II -- the theory being that Wilson lost the political astuteness that would have enabled him to presuade the Senate to ratify the League of Nations Treaty, which Wilson viewed as the sole means to prevent another global conflict within a generation.

hypertensive headaches?
From 1915 to 1919 Wilson had episodic severe headaches, lasting for days. It is possible these were due to [uncontrolled] hypertension 5.
Early in September 1919 Wilson began a nationwide rail tour to build public support for the League of Nations Treaty, which faced unyielding opposition in the Senate. The 9981-mile trip would include 26 major stops and at least ten rear-platform speeches a day. Other than Sundays, Wilson refused rest days, saying "This is a business trip, pure and simple." 1e

With his long history of arterial disease in the brain and eye, Wilson was not healthy when he set out. He was to get much worse during the trip, experiencing severe headaches, double vision, difficulty breathing, and signs of a weakened heart. The tour was canceled when he developed unmistakable signs of a stroke, though these later eased 5.

Wilson's wife called the journey "one long nightmare" 1f. Dr. Cary Grayson, who was on the trip, described it as "a prolonged agony of physical pain"  1f -- pain that he was unable to treat (no physician in that era could have).

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Map and events compiled from 1g
Wilson suffered a catastrophic, disabling stroke while President (Oct. 3, 1919), as recounted in multiple sources 8a 3c 9a 10a, including an entire book on the subject 1. (Any biography covering Wilson's presidential years should devote extensive coverage to this event.) This was the most serious illness suffered by any sitting President. Wilson had bad headaches before becoming president, but presidential physician Cary Grayson ascribed the stroke to a thrombosis, stating it was not hemorrhagic 8b.

Wilson's condition was hidden from his Cabinet, from the Vice President and, of course, from the public. This could only be done by keeping Wilson physically isolated. Some members of the Cabinet were uneasy. On Oct. 5, 1919, ex-President Taft wrote to A. L. Lowell 11a:

[Secretary of the Treasury] McAdoo says the President [Wilson] is in a state of collapse -- that his mind is clear but that he is so weak that his doctors would not permit him to discuss or think about any of these matters. ... He says that he would like to help, but he is in a delicate situation, being the son-in-law of the President.
Taft was no fan of Woodrow Wilson, but it is interesting that even an ex-President in the opposing political party did not (could not?) act on behalf of the people.

The White House maid, too, thought Wilson's mind was clear, but agonized at the twisted smiles that he would give her -- only half of his face worked. The Secret Service would seat him in his car so the public could not see the paralyzed side. 7d

The stroke was first disclosed to the public four months later, by Dr. Hugh Young who had consulted on Wilson's inability to urinate 12.

After his stroke, Wilson was driven around in his car and took the opportunity to apprehend speeders! 3d

This may be an exaggeration, however. Dr. Mark Benbow of the Woodrow Wilson House reports that "He didn't actually try to catch speeders himself, but he did send his secret service agents after them in their separate car. They would usually come back and claim that the speeder was going too fast so they could not catch them. Wilson also asked his Attorney General if he had the power to give speeding tickets. The Attorney General said no. This probably started before Wilson had his stroke. The speed limit in Washington then was 22 mph" 13 [? source = "Starling of the White House"]. Wilson used to tease his family and friends at the dinner table asking "Well, who's been pinched today?" 5a.

Questions about Wilson's sanity entered the public sphere, including a rumor that iron bars had to be installed on his bedroom windows. In actuality, the bars had been installed years earlier to protect Theodore Roosevelt's children. Another disparaging report misquoted the Queen of Belgium saying Wilson was dressed in a torn wool sweater during her White House visit. She had said warm wool sweater. 7e

Still, there were noticeable changes in Wilson's personality after the stroke. The White House maid described a childish irritability, and pouting when he would not get his way 7d.

His physician conspired to keep the extent of Wilson's disability secret, along with Mrs. Wilson. Wilson's chief of staff, Tumulty, was even cut out. (Tumulty's son later became chief of internal medicine at Johns Hopkins.) To do: Talk about the tumble that may have changed history -- led to selection of both Wilson's and FDR's incompetent physicians.
On his last day in office, he was "emaciated and mask-like" 14a.
Odds and Ends
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Cited Sources
  1. Smith, Gene. When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1964.
    a  p.x  b  p.48  c  p.49  d  pp.49-50  e  p.60  f  p.283  g  pp.60-85. Unfortunately, Smith does not provide specific sources for specific statements. Thus, it should not always be presumed that dates, places, and events are precisely correct.
  2. Available on the web:
  3. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.
    a  p.65  b  p.5  c  pp.56-77  d  p.75  e  p.64
  4. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
    a  p.218
  5. Weinstein, Edwin A. Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
    a  p.260 per Dr. Benbow
  6. Anonymous. President Wilson Ill Again. New York Times. December 12, 1913; Page 1.
  7. Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961.
    a  p.143  b  p.135  c  p.149  d  p.157  e  pp.156-157  f  pp.147-148  g  pp.148-149, 223  h  p.223

    Comment: This book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks, prompting Jacqueline Kennedy to require all staff at the White House to sign a pledge agreeing not to write about their experiences (NY Times, page B8, Nov. 12, 1997). Parks's mother, a maid at the White House from 1909-1939, had actually been encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to write and publish a memoir (p260).

  8. Grayson, CT. Woodrow Wilson -- An Intimate Memoir. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, Winston, 1960.
    a  pp.96-100  b  p.100  c  p.110

    Comment: Grayson was Wilson's physician during his entire tenure as President. No presidential physician before or since Grayson has had as close a relationship with the Chief Executive. It is remarkable that, in his book, Grayson devotes only one paragraph to Wilson's stroke (page 100).

  9. Park, Bert Edward. The Impact of Illness of World Leaders. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
    a  pp.3-76
  10. Post, Jerrold M. and Robins, Robert S. When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Dilemma of the Captive King. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
    a  pp.85-90

    Comment: At one time Post worked for the CIA, profiling foreign leaders.

  11. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  p.927
  12. Loughlin, Kevin R. Hugh Hampton Young at the Bedside of Woodrow Wilson: The President, the Urologist, and the First Lady. Urology. 2017: 100: 1-5. Pubmed: 27810357. DOI:   Also available on the web at:
  13. Benbow, Mark. Personal communication, July 2, 2003.
  14. Longworth, Alice Roosevelt. Crowded Hours. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
    a  p.323
  15. Ross, Ishbel. An American Family: The Tafts - 1678 to 1964. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1964.
    a  p.316
  16. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.
    a  p.126  b  pp.22, 81

    Comment: Stoddard was editor and owner of the New York Evening Mail from 1900 to 1925.

  17. Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (ed). Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America. 2nd ed. London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1981.
    a  p.433

    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
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