John Adams: A Lifetime Chronology of his Ailments

John Adams had a bewildering and vast array of physical symptoms SEE BELOW which would manifest during times of stress. Given the times in which he lived, and the work he did, they had cause to manifest often. The earliest episode was in 1756. He had major "collapses" in 1771, 1775 (while serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia), and 1781 (while minister plenipotentiary to Europe). As President in 1797, impending war with France elicited his usual constellation of symptoms, but the crisis abated before they became severe.

The symptoms would cluster in time. The shortest of these clusters lasted weeks. The longest lasted years. The 1781 episode supposedly had him comatose for 5 days.

Dr. Zebra spent a huge amount of time trying to convince himself that hyperthyroidism was responsible for these illnesses, as per the theory of Ferling and Braverman 1, but remains unconvinced. Blinderman 2 labels many of these episodes merely as "colds" and accepts that Adams was susceptible to catching cold. Bumgarner 3a suggests that allergies may have been involved.

Comment: There is no obvious way to make sense of it all on the basis of organic illness. Read the tabulation of Adams's ailments and judge for yourself, remembering that the man lived to age 90 -- clearly the [non-]hypochondriac's epitaph ("I told you so") did not apply to Adams. Still, "hard findings," such as Adams' 5-day coma in 1781, cause Dr. Zebra to keep an open mind. For example, Adams had several features of variegate porphyria, a protean disease that can be triggered by psychological stress. The "hard" features that Adams had include coma, weakness, a chronic skin disorder, and a relapsing-remitting course over decades 4. SEE BELOW

Far more common than variegate porphyria, however, is somatization -- a disorder in which psychological ailments are translated into physical ailments. It is not an intentional process. No doubt Adams did have episodes of organic disease between 1756 and 1800, but the signal-to-noise ratio is too low to tease them out 200 years later.

poor vision
As part of his somatization, Adams frequently complained about his eyes SEE BELOW. By the end of his Presidency, he doubtless had real ocular problems: "his eyes weakened so that he could barely read or write." In 1811 Adams reported that he read better since spectacles had been prescribed for him 2a.
The table below enumerates health-related episodes in the life of John Adams from 1756 to 1800. Facts are listed as a description of a life event, as an indication of Adams' belief about his health, as an instance of positive health news, or as an instance of negative health news.

Reference key: Ba = Baumgarner 3, Bl = Blinderman 2, and FB = Ferling and Braverman 1.

DateLife EventsHealth BeliefsPositive HealthNegative Health
1756Studying law  Recurring bouts of depression [Ba-9-10]
1756Studying law  Caught a bad cold riding from Worcester to Shrewsbury to attend Joshua Willard's wedding [Bl-273] [Ba-10]. It left him "weak and aching" [Ba-10].
""  Dr. Nahum Willard prescribes milk and toast diet [Bl-273]. Purging may also have been part of the treatment [Bl-273]
1760   "An ugly cold, phlegmatic stomach, and cholicky [sic] pain in his bowels" [Bl-273]
1764   Left home for Plymouth "with a [fowl] disordered stomach, a pale face, an aching head, and an anxious heart." [Bl-273]
1766-67Discussion with wife of whether to move from Braintree to Boston. [Ba-10] Wife states: "Your health will bear town life very well. ... If I tell you that you have the constitution of an ox, it will offend you." [Ba-10]Prone to colds. Excitement would make him wheeze. Cough and wheezing interfered with sleep. Felt health was beginning to fail him. [Ba-10]
April 1768Move to Boston. Law practice thrives. [Ba-10] Wife wrote: "He really never seemed better, his appetite was prodigious, his cheeks were round and rosy, he seemed altogether chunkier and stronger than ever." [Ba-10] 
DateLife EventsHealth BeliefsPositive HealthNegative Health
Feb. 1770Fourteen-month-old daughter dies [FB-85]  Adams would not speak of her for years [Bl-268-9] (NB: Blinderman has the year wrong)
spring 1770Attorney for British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre; member of the Massachusetts assembly at the height of popular protest against the British [FB-85]Health was damaged by "labor and Anxiety" resulting from his public service. [FB-85]  
1770Wife endures difficult pregnancy [FB-85]   
1770Elected judge  Viewed election as death sentence, owing to his feeble health [Bl-269] (also [Ba-11])
1771   Weak; aches and pains in back, chest, and head; depressed over apathy of Bostonians for the revolutionary cause [Bl-273]
Jan. 1771   Complains of feeling weak [FB-86]
Feb. 1771   Agitated after a stressful meeting with several prominent Bostonians. That night writes "great Anxiety and distress" in his diary and experiences a "Pain in my Breast and a complaint in my Lungs." Spends "a most unhappy night -- never in more misery, in my whole Life -- God grant, I may never see such another Night." [FB-86]
    Spent several weeks recovering. Experiences irritability, depression, weakness, fatigue, insomnia, and "what was likely either heart palpitations or a quite rapid heartbeat." [FB-86]
ca. April 1771   Eight weeks after falling ill, journeys to Stafford Springs (Connecticut) to seek a cure in the waters. [FB-86] (Also [Bl-273])
ca. July 1771   More than four elapses from the time he fell ill to the time he was able to return to work. [FB-86]
1771 Believing his illness had been brought on by stress, Adams moved his family from Boston to Braintree to escape the tensions and pressures of the city. [FB-86] (NB: The population of Boston then was 15,000. [Bl-269])Enjoys fine air, exercises, and family life on the farm [Bl-273] 
ca. 1772 Feared to live in Boston because of the diseases one might contract there [Bl-269]  
DateLife EventsHealth BeliefsPositive HealthNegative Health
ca. 1772-6Leaves politics [FB-86] Enjoys good health for four years. [FB-86] 
May 1774  Writes his wife that he rises at 5 am, walks three miles, and resumes his walks in the afternoon [Bl-269] (Also [Ba-12])Mentions his infirmities in same letter to Abigail [Bl-269]
Sept. 1774  Writes his wife that he is in excellent condition. [FB-87] 
1774-8Delegate to Continental Congress [FB-87]   
May-Sept. 1774   Describes his life as "a continual Scaene [sic] of Fatigue, Vexation, Labour, and Anxiety." Is "full of fears" and "anxious." [FB-87]
15 March 1775Votes to raise troops in his home town [FB-87]  On same day as vote, notes uncomfortable red and irritated eyes [FB-87]
May 1775Hostilities with British start at Lexington and Concordn on 19 April. As a member of Congress, Adams is participating in a clearly treasonous body. He worries his political activism will ruin his legal practice. [FB-87]  At some point after Lexington-Concord, collapses with what he believed was fever, plus "allarming" [sic] symptoms. Several days later is too weak to join colleagues in departure for Philadelphia. [FB-87]
May 1775Arrives in Philadelphia [FB-87]   
 Continental Congress in Philadelphia  Sore, inflamed eyes, and long, meancholy-inducing colds [Bl-273] Dr. Nicholas Noel prescribed a version of balsamum fioraventi, with the instructions: "Pour a few drops into the Palms ofyour hands, rub it over the Palm and the Fingers, and then hold the insides of your hands before your eyes, and the Steam which evaporates enters the eyes and works them clear." [Bl-273]
May-June 1775In Philadelphia [FB-87]  "I have not so good Health as I had before." -- "I came from home Sick and have been so ever Since." -- "miserable" -- "completely miserable" -- "not well" -- "quite infirm" -- "weak in health" [FB-87]
May 1775   Treated for a skin disorder [FB-88]
May-July 1775   "smarting eyes" -- "so weak and dim that I can neither read, write, or see without great Pain" [FB-87] (Also Bl-273])
June 1775   Deeply depressed [FB-88]
Sept. 1775   Tremors [FB-88]. Treated for a skin disorder [FB-88]. Extremely cross and irritable, acknowledging inability to control his temper at times [FB-88]
May 1776   "I am always unwell" [FB-87]
July 1776   Sensitive to heat. Sweating profusely, even on cool evenings [FB-87-88] The worst anxiety he had ever had. [FB-88] Admits to mental confusion [FB-88]
1776 Sept. Adams and Ben Franklin, sharing a room in northern New Jersey, debate whether to leave the windows open or shut. Adams believed that cold air is the obvious cause of colds. [Bl-272]  
1777American fortunes improving in the War [FB-92]. Esteemed by Congressional colleagues [FB-92]   
April 1777   "You know I cannot pass a spring or fall without an ill turn and I have one of these for four or five weeks -- a cold as usual. Warm weather and a little exercise with a little medicine, I suppose, will cure me as usual." [Ba-12]
May 1777   Writes wife he has been sick for months on end [FB-87] "I have been now for ten weeks in a drooping disagreeable way, and am constantly with a cold" [Ba-12]
June 1777  "tolerable health" [FB-92] 
June-Aug. 1777   Sensitivity to heat. Profuse sweating while asleep [FB-92]
Sept. 1777  "I have enjoyed better health this session than the last and have suffered less from certain Fidgets, Pidlings, and Irritabilities which have become so famous." [Bl-269] 
Sept. 1777  "Health is as good as common" [FB-92] 
DateLife EventsHealth BeliefsPositive HealthNegative Health
1778 Aboard a frigate en route to France, asks the Captain to order the men to wash, sweep their quarters, and purify their clothing. Also recommended that meals be provided regularly to sustain the sailors' health and spirits. [Bl-273] Eyes trouble him [Bl-273]
1779-80Confident that American victory was near [FB-92]   
1780military defeats; Benedict Arnold treason; mutinies in Army; American morale plummets [FB-92-93]   
1780   In Spain, "contracted violent colds in Bilboa's [sic] dwelling places that lacked windows and chimneys." [Bl-272]
July 1780Beginning of 15 months of extreme work-related stress [FB-96]   
Oct. 1780   notes health has declined since the summer [FB-93]
1780 or 81   eye difficulties [FB-93]
1781Minister to Holland  Fever. Coma for 5 days. Attended by a Dutch physician. [Bl-273]
Apr-July 1781"distracted with more cares than ever" [FB-93]   
spring 1781   Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse describes Adams as uncommonly irritable and somewhat confused, and notes "protruberant eyes." Adams complains of sensitivity to heat and weakness, and discovers a growth in his neck [FB-93]. No evidence that Waterhouse or other physicians who saw Adams noted a neck mass [FB-94]
July 1781  "Anxiety is good for my health" [FB-92] 
summer 1781French propose bad deal to end war. Adams must respond [FB-94]. Soon thereafter, learns that he is being replaced by a 5-man commission [FB-94]  Extraordinary anxiety. Appeared confused as he formulated response to French [FB-94]
Aug. 1781   Collapses. Diagnosed as malaria, alternatively scurvy. Adams describes "a nervous fever, of a dangerous kind, bordering uponputrid." "Insensible" for five or six weeks, and seriously ill for weeks. Six weeks before he could even write a brief letter to his wife [FB-95]. Physicians administer quinine in first few days [FB-95].
  Believes stress was a causative factor in this illness and previous ones [FB-96]  
Oct. 1781   Returns to work after two months [Ba-13], and workload kept light for the next 10. [FB-96]
Nov. 1781Receives word of American vitory at Yorktown [FB-96]   
    Three months after collapse, remained "feeble." [FB-95]
1782  Describes himself as "pretty well." Walks and rides horseback. [FB-96] Correspondence notes slow recovery from fall 1781 to late 1782 [FB-96]A year after collapse, still had painful dermatological condition and continued extreme sensitivity to heat [FB-95]. Complains of lameness, pain and weakness in extremities, memory loss, depression. [FB-95]. Ferling and Braverman think it likely he had a goiter [FB-95]
autumn 1782Abigail unhappy with marriage [FB-97]   
April 1783Difficulties negotiating peace treaty with Britain [FB-96]  Believes health again declining. [FB-96]
1783   Two years after collapse, continues to have skin lesions he calls "scorbutic disorders," plus weakness in legs and ankles. Laments continued ill health. Fears "I shall never get rid of the Rests [sic] of that fever." The illness had "broken me very much" [FB-95]
Sept. 1783Treaty of Paris signed, ending Revolutionary War  Dutch fever re-occurrence just following signature of Treaty [Ba-13]. Bled by Dr. Sir James Jay (brother of John Jay). [Bl-273] Paris in grips of influenza epidemic [FB-97]. Describes illness as "another Fever" -- "not much less violent" -- "feeble, emaciated, languid to a great degree" [FB-97]
Jan. 1784  Feels best since 1780 [FB-97] 
ca. 1784   Nearly three years after collapse, fears he would "never again be a Strong Man" [FB-95]
end 1784  Daily exercise includes walks of up to 6 miles [FB-98] 
DateLife EventsHealth BeliefsPositive HealthNegative Health
spring 1789Vice President. Violent criticisms of some of his newspaper columns [FB-98]  Brief eye trouble, tachycardia or arrhythmia, palsy in the hands ("quiveration"). Abated when newspaper controversy abated. [FB-98]
Oct-Dec 1790Vice President  Nervous ills. Used Peruvian bark (quinine) to relieve his headaches. [Bl-273]
Dec. 1791Vice President  Wrote less of his nervous ills, but complained of a great cold. [Bl-273]
1791Vice President  Dutch fever re-occurred, weakening him to the point he could barely attend Congressional sessions. [Bl-273]
 President  "Great cold" acquired in Trenton. Attended by "maiden laidies," who treated him with calomel, rhubarb, and a private remedy that cured him. The success of the private remedy vexed Abigail, who was proud of her own special pharmacopeia. [Bl-273]
Nov. 1797President  Confined to bed for 10 days after contracting a severe cold on a cold day. [Bl-273] Abigail wrote: "Fortunately, good nursing got the better of it." [Bl-273]
1797-98War with France appears imminent  "Health sinking ... under my Troubles and fatigues" -- "never shall be very well-certainly while in this office" -- tremors persisted -- lost weight while eating well -- mentally confused and irritable. Ills abated as crisis resolved. [FB-98]
1798 winterPresident In good health [Bl-269]Wife Abigail writes "The constant care, application, and anxiety will wear out the firmest constitution." [Bl-269]
May 1798President  Abigail writes: "He needs a respite -- or he'll succumb." Then later in the month: "Mr. Adams looks very pale, he falls away." [Bl-273]
 President  "The presidency wore out Adams. His eyes weakened so that he could barely read or write, he lost his hair and his teeth, and he lisped because he refused to wear false teeth." [Bl-273]
Cited Sources
  1. Ferling, John; Braverman, Lewis E. John Adams's health reconsidered. William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series. 1998;LV(1):83-104.

    Comment: Thanks to Shawn Pirelli for this reference.

  2. Blinderman, A. John Adams: fears, depressions, and ailments. NY State J Med. 1977;77:268-276. Pubmed: 320523.
    a  p.274

    Comment: Covers all aspects of Adams and medicine. Sections include Adams' relation to the medical profession, his thoughts on health, his health history, and his encounters with smallpox.

  3. 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  pp.9-15

    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.

  4. Available on the web:

    Comment: The Massachusetts Historical Society has searchable transcriptions of Adams' letters and autobiography available online. Letters written by his wife are also included. One of variegate porphyria's hallmarks is urine that turns red after a time. On Dec. 15, 2003 Dr. Zebra searched for the following terms in the documents above, without finding any references to Adams' urine: "urin*", "make water", "piss*", "color" (which also included colour), and "discharg*".

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