Health and Medical History of President

Richard Nixon

President #37: 1969-1974
Lived 1913-1994
Buy da shirt!
Buy da shirt!

Health and Medical History of President

Richard Nixon

President #37: 1969-1974
Lived 1913-1994
Lived 1913-1994 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

Maladies & Conditions  · 1960 debate · phlebitis · smoked pipe · psychology · psychology · eye blinking · despondent · clot and pulmonary embolism · chronically ill · phenytoin use? · stroke

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
1960 debate
It's widely acknowledged that Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy because of his physical appearance during a television debate with JFK. According to Don Hewett, who produced the televised debate, Nixon looked bad that day on television for several reasons: (1) Nixon had a staphylococcal infection at the time, (2) Nixon "smacked his knee" in the studio and was in pain, (3) After Kennedy declined to have make-up applied, Nixon declined, too, fearing the consequences if it became known that he had accepted make-up when Kennedy had not. To cover his five o'clock shadow, Nixon instead had one of his people smear a product of dubious quality, known as "Shave Stick," on his face 1. MORE
Episode of phlebitis in left leg during a trip to Japan in 1965 2.
smoked pipe
Habitually smoked a pipe (when meeting with Gerald Ford, at least) 3a.
Psychological problems while president, in wake of Watergate scandal 4

It is widely believed that Nixon ordered US military forces to DEFCON 3 during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 to warn the Soviet Union that American vital interests were at stake. In fact, the National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, gave the order alone (which included launch of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers to airborne holding points). Nixon was indisposed, having "sufferred something like a nervous breakdown, telling Kissinger that he was being attacked [by his critics in the worsening Watergate scandal] 'because of their desire to kill the President. And they may succeed. I may physically die.'" 5a

Enormous pressure bore on Nixon during the protracted Watergate investigations. At one point he told visiting lawmakers: "I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead." This prompted California Senator Alan Cranston to call Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger about "the need for keeping a berserk President from plunging us into a holocaust." 6a

In Nixon's final days as President, Schlesinger instructed the military to double-check attack orders from the White House with him or with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger 7. It has been correctly stated that "This was an unambiguously illegal circumvention of the president's authority. But everyone should be grateful Schlesinger acted." 7

eye blinking
"Furious [eye] blinking" was exhibited by Nixon during his speech resigning the Presidency. Mentally unpleasant or uncomfortable situations are known to increase blink rate. Psychologist Joseph Tecce of Boston College has called this the "Nixon effect" precisely because of Nixon's speech 8.

Dr. Zebra also remembers the sweat on Nixon's upper lip during the speech. A commentator at the time said it was a chronic problem for Nixon, but in this case no attempt was made to disguise it.

Gerald Ford described Nixon's immediate post-White House mental status: "I was hearing that he was terribly distraught. I don't know whether you could call it irrational, [but] he was despondent, had an unhealthy state of mind. I heard that." Ford further elaborated that he had heard Nixon was exhibiting "general despondency, distressed attitude," but could not recall (this seems to have been 1994) whether he'd heard that Nixon was suicidal 3b.

About this time, the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get his (Schlesinger's) approval before executing "any emergency order coming from the president" 9a.

clot and pulmonary embolism
In September 1974 (the month after leaving the Presidency and returning to California), developed left leg enlargement, tenderness in the left calf and thigh, and episodic shortness of breath. Was admitted to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where he was anti-coagulated with heparin, and where lung scans "showed evidence of pulmonary embolism in the right lung." He was discharged on coumadin. 2

On October 23, he had groin pain and persistent left leg enlargement. He was re-admitted to the hospital. A retrograde venogram showed a clot extending into the left iliac vein. On October 29 Dr. Eldon Hickman performed a one-hour operation, clipping the vein above the clot. 2

The remainder of the hospital course was difficult. About six hours post-operatively, Nixon stood up to urinate and fainted. Fearing a bleed, his anti-coagulation was stopped and reversed (with vitamin K) and he was given three units of packed red cells. Platelets and more red cells were given in the days to come. Nixon developed a large hematoma in the flank, and a left pleural effusion (felt secondary to the bleed). 2 Comment: Thus, Nixon had the Grey Turner sign of retroperitoneal hemorrhage.

When discharged on November 14, he had lost 15 pounds, was depressed, and tired. 2

In his Sept. 8 speech granting Nixon's pardon, President Ford cited the threat to Nixon's health as part of the justification for the pardon 3c. Ford visited Nixon in the hospital in October 3d.

chronically ill
In November 1974, i.e. very soon after the complicated hospital admission described above, there was a possibility Nixon would have to testify in court in Washington. The judge sent three physicians to evaluate whether this was medically reasonable. 2

On Nov. 25, the physicians found Nixon unsteady on his feet, quiet, subdued, and appearing chronically ill. Nixon told "how awful the intravenous Heparin therapy" had been in the hospital. He took one or two short walks each day, still had pain in his leg, had difficulty concentrating, had noticed a change in personality, had a poor appetite, and was sleeping 12 hours a day (never sleeping more than 7 previously). The physicians examined him (see 2 for findings).

The physicians concluded that Nixon could clearly not travel, and could not even give a deposition at his home for another 6 weeks. 2

phenytoin use?
For many years, and at great expense, financier Jack Dreyfus has been touting the the anti-seizure drug phenytoin for many indications besides seizures. "Dreyfus recently made news when a biography of Richard M. Nixon reported that the financier gave the drug to Nixon. The Nixon family disputed the report." 10
hemorrhagic or thrombotic?
Odds and Ends
In Congress (maybe)
59 reviews
Ampres Series
41 reviews
Kansas Series
5 reviews
Cited Sources
  1. Hewitt, D. Tell Me a Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

    Comment: Actually, I heard this statement in an interview of Hewitt conducted by Terry Gross on the NPR radio program Fresh Air on April 10, 2001. Hewitt was publicizing his new book, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the Nixon story is somewhere in the book. Hewitt is best known as the producer of the 60 Minutes television show.

  2. Ross RS. A California house call. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association. 2003; 114: 255-270.
  3. DeFrank, Thomas M. Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007.
    a  p.35  b  p.104  c  p.45  d  p.102
  4. Woodward, Robert; Bernstein Carl. The Final Days. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
  5. Walker, Martin. The Cold War. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
    a  p.227; the DEFCON 3 alert happened on Oct. 24, and the Watergate "Saturday Night Massacre" had been Oct. 20. DEFCON 3 is the highest peacetime state of alert.
  6. Nelson, Craig. The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
    a  p.289
  7. Cirincione, Joseph. No president should have the absolute authority to launch nuclear weapons. Washington Post. December 1, 2019.

    Comment: Available on the web at:

  8. Jaret, Peter. Blinking and thinking. In Health. July/August 1990; 4(4): 36-37.
  9. Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety. New York: Penguin, 2013.
    a  p.360  b  pp.358-359

    Comment: Fantastic book that tells a gripping, almost unbelievable story. Was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

  10. Romano, Lois. Keating allies furious over alleged leak. Washington Post. 14 January 2001, page A5.
  11. Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (ed). Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America. 2nd ed. London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1981.
    a  p.430  b  p.480  c  p.567

    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   (15 matches when checked in March 2013)

George Washington · John Adams · Thomas Jefferson · James Madison · James Monroe · John Q. Adams · Andrew Jackson · Martin van Buren · William Harrison · John Tyler · James Polk · Zachary Taylor · Millard Fillmore · Franklin Pierce · James Buchanan · Abraham Lincoln · Andrew Johnson · Ulysses Grant · Rutherford Hayes · James Garfield · Chester Arthur · Grover Cleveland · Benjamin Harrison · Grover Cleveland · William McKinley · Theodore Roosevelt · William Taft · Woodrow Wilson · Warren Harding · Calvin Coolidge · Herbert Hoover · Franklin Roosevelt · Harry Truman · Dwight Eisenhower · John Kennedy · Lyndon Johnson · Richard Nixon · Gerald Ford · James Carter · Ronald Reagan · George Bush · William Clinton · George W. Bush · Barack Obama · Donald Trump · Joseph Biden