Health and Medical History of President

Warren Harding

President #29: 1921-1923
Lived 1865-1923
The most striking fact about the illness was the almost total exhaustion. As he said to me, he "had no idea that a man could be so completely exhausted." 1a
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Health and Medical History of President

Warren Harding

President #29: 1921-1923
Lived 1865-1923
Lived 1865-1923 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 most striking fact about the illness was the almost total exhaustion. As he said to me, he "had no idea that a man could be so completely exhausted." 1a

Maladies & Conditions  · race · nervous breakdowns? · mumps orchitis · minor ails · aphasia? · mastoid surgery · sterile? no · hypertension + diabetes · tobacco habits · suspected heart disease · mental inadequacy · violates Prohibition · signs of heart disease · influenza? · infarct

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
Questions about African-American ancestor(s) raised during the campaign????
nervous breakdowns?
Between 1889 and 1901, Harding paid five "protracted" visits to the J. P. Kellogg sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan "to recover from fatigue, overstrain, and nervous illnesses." 2
mumps orchitis
As a boy, Harding had a "severe attack of mumps with swelling of the testicles" 3a.
minor ails
Harding's father was a homeopathic practitioner who attended to most of Harding's minor medical needs. Correspondence between Harding and another homeopath, later White House physician Dr. Charles Sawyer, shows that Senator Harding was treated for "nasal allergy" and dermatitis in 1916-1917. 2
The writer H.L. Mencken thought Harding's English, or "Gamalielese," was the worst he ever saw 4a:
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm... of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
On the off chance that Mencken was not exaggerating, this raises the question of whether Harding had some type of mild aphasia.
mastoid surgery
Underwent mastoid surgery in 1901 because of "ear trouble" 3b.
sterile? no
In her book, The President's Daughter 5, one Nan Britton claimed she had borne Harding's daughter. Although scholars now accept her story (in part because of similar "ear structure" in Harding and the daughter) 3c, there was enormous controversy when the book appeared in 1927. Harding was then four years dead. His stalwarts claimed Harding was sterile as a consequence of mumps orchitis in childhood 3d. Doctors in Battle Creek concurred, citing Harding's childless marriage 3e.
hypertension + diabetes
In mid- to late 1919, Harding was still insisting privately that he had no ambitions to be President. His blood pressure was 185 and there were traces of sugar in his urine, he told one colleague, and he did not want the burden of being President. 3f
tobacco habits
Harding "used tobacco in all forms... two cigars a day, interspersed with a pipe and an occasional cigarette." He also chewed tobacco. 2 Harding smoked a cigar to please his wife, but connived with the White House staff to keep chewing tobacco stashed away in various rooms 6a.
suspected heart disease
By early 1919, Dr. Sawyer began to suspect that Harding had some sort of heart ailment 2. Bumgarner states, but does not support, that "It is apparent that Harding had significant symptoms related to his heart over at least a 25-year period before he died in 1923" 7a.

In 1918, Harding "was still troubled by his health, physical and mental. He put on weight -- he was over two hundred pounds now -- and for all his golfing, his breath grew shorter. His heart trouble was real enough. 'I had a serious spell of it covering a period of two or three years,' he wrote.... 'As a matter of fact, I have never gotten wholly free of it'" 3g.

mental inadequacy
Harding many times voiced his realization that the demands of the Presidency were beyond his mental abilities.

This must have been obivious to all, and it, along with his death in office, seems to have moderated what might have otherwise been much harsher criticism from those who did not like him, such as the notoriously sharp-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth 8a:

I think every one must feel that the brevity of his tenure of office was a mercy to him and to the country. Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob. He had discovered what was going on around him, and that knowledge, the worry, the thought of the disclosures and shame that were bound to come, undoubtedly undermined his health -- one might say actually killed him.
Longworth futher characterizes Harding as "a slack, good-natured man with an unfortunate disposition to surround himself with intimates of questionable character to whom he was unable to say no" 8b.
violates Prohibition
The Hardings did not serve alcohol during formal White House events (because Prohibition was then in force), "but after hours, with his friends, the President would call for the setting up of the bar" 6b.
signs of heart disease
By 1922, signs of heart disease were increasing. Harding was more easily exhausted and had transient chest pains. "A White House valet described how Harding was forced to sleep with his head propped up by several pillows, a sign of congestive heart failure" 2. Harding's exhaustion compares with his earlier attitude toward sleep, observed by the chief usher of the White House 9a:
He was never in bed before midnight and more often it was one or two o'clock. He was always up at eight, and when it was suggested to him that he should lie abed in the morning he answered, "No, it is too much like a woman." Sometimes he would go to his office, lie down on the couch, and sleep.
In January 1923 Harding had a protracted, enervating gastrointestinal digestive illness that was diagnosed as influenza. 2 (Given that abdominal complaints appeared during the later stages of Harding's cardiac disease, one wonders if this episode could have been abdominal angina.)
Harding's final illness occured during an extended trip to the West in summer 1923 MORE, but the illness had started earlier: Harding told his physician [correctly] that he would not return alive from the trip 10.

After playing six holes of golf in Vancouver, Canada, Harding became so tired that, to quell any suspicions, he moved to the 17th hole, then finished the 18th. He later called for White House homeopath Sawyer, complaining of nausea and pain in the upper abdomen. Sawyer found the President had a pulse of 120 beats per minute and was breathing 40 times per minute. (Both of these readings are abnormally high.) "Intensive cardiac therapy including digitalis was started." 2

Harding died suddenly and unexpectedly in his bed in a San Francisco hotel room several days later, on August 2, 1923. Mrs. Harding refused permission for an autopsy. 2 6c Comment: It is often supposed that Harding died of an acute myocardial infarction, that is, a " heart attack" or "coronary occlusion." However, this should not be supposed merely because he died suddenly. Harding clearly had heart failure (recall the valet's statement), and persons with heart failure are prone to sudden death as well.

His physician diagnosed Harding's fatal myocardial infarct as crab meat poisoning 11a. Lyman Wilbur, who was a cardiologist and president of Stanford, forecast his death 1 MORE, as did renowned New York cardiologist Emmanuel Libman 7b. It was also reported initially that Harding died of a blood clot in the brain, complicated by pneumonia 6c.

Odds and Ends
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Ampres Series
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Kansas Series
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Signature Series
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Cited Sources
  1. Wilbur, Ray Lyman; with Robinson, Edgar Eugene and Edwards, Paul Carroll (eds.). The Memoirs of Ray Lyman Wilbur 1875-1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.
    a  p.380
  2. Deppisch, LM. Homeopathic medicine and presidential health: homeopathic influences upon two Ohio presidents. Pharos. Fall 1997;60:5-10. Pubmed: 9385827.

    Comment: Discusses the relationships of Garfield and Harding with homeopathy. Also reprints a Currier & Ives drawing of "The Death of General James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States."

  3. Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
    a  p.311  b  p.138  c  pp.669  d  pp.642  e  pp.311n  f  pp.331-332  g  p.301  h  pp.317-318  i  pp.317  j  pp.310-311  k  pp.323
  4. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
    a  p.229
  5. Britton, Nan. The President's Daughter. New York: Elizabeth Ann Guild, Inc., 1927.

    Comment: Author claims that Harding fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter with her in 1919, while he was a member of the Senate.

  6. Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961.
    a  p.167  b  p.168  c  p.171  d  p.166  e  p.162  f  pp.173-174

    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).

  7. 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.189  b  pp.190, 191

    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.

  8. Longworth, Alice Roosevelt. Crowded Hours. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
    a  p.325  b  pp.320-321
  9. Hoover, Irwin Hood (Ike). 42 Years in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934.
    a  p.268

    Comment: The Library of Congress contains more of Hoover's first-hand recollections of eight presidents.

  10. Anonymous. The Progress of the World. The American Review of Reviews. 1923; 68: 227.   Available on the web at:
  11. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.
    a  p.5
  12. Smith, Ira R. T.; Morris, Joe Alex. "Dear Mr. President:" The Story of Fifty Years in the White House Mail Room. New York: Julian Messner, 1949.
    a  p.115

    Comment: Ira Smith was a peppery fellow who ran the White House mail room from 1897 to 1948. He started working during the administration of William McKinley and was the only mail room staffer until the volume of mail made it necessary to hire help during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

  13. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.
    a  pp.22, 81

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

  14. Anonymous. The Progress of the World. The American Review of Reviews. 1923; 68: 251.   Available on the web at:
Other Sources
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