William Howard Taft: Perineal Abscess

perineal abscess
Taft lived in Manila as Governor of the Philippines from 1900 to 1903. In September 1901 he developed a fever and was diagnosed (probably incorrectly) with dengue. In early October he developed abdominal pain. Late that month, an abscess in the perineum ruptured. After an emergency operation, he was near death for several days, but recovered. A second operation was necessary in late November 1901, and the need for a third became apparent in February 1902 MORE. In March 1903 he developed amoebic dysentery and was forced to bed SEE BELOW leading some to believes the original abscess was amoebic 1a.
Here is a detailed chronology of Taft's near-fatal illness, as told in Pringle's definitive biography 2.
August 1901 2a:
Governor Taft went on another provincial tour.... The weather was excessively hot. After two weeks of it, Taft began to complain:
I have suffered on this trip [to the mountains in Luzon] more than on the southern trip from the heat, which has brought out prickly heat all over my body, and this and the pimples from the heat have broken out into little fistulas, within which there seems to be a slight infection.
Early October 1901 2b:
Taft was, although he declined to admit it, distinctly sick man. He had returned in poor condition from the Luzon tour. Then he was attacked by dengue fever, a common topical ailment. Mrs. Taft... had departed for a China tour on October 1. It was on the following day that Taft fell ill. He remained in bed for about eight days. Then he began to suffer severe intestinal pains.
Late October 1901 2c:
For a time the situation had been exceedingly grave.... The physicians in Manila had been puzzled by the condition of the civil governor. He had been in acute pain for several days. Then a rectal abscess broke and on Sunday afternoon, October 27, he was taken to the First Reserve Hospital on a stretcher for an immediate operation. The surgeons found an abscess in the perineum. A very extensive incision was necessary and until Tuesday morning the surgeons were apprehensive that gangrene might set in. Then, however, the wound began to heal. Taft was told that he must avoid all work for at least a month. He recalled with mild amusement his first experience under an anaesthetic:
I came into the operating room and found myself in a condition in which I desired to hire a hall and make a speech. The drug seemed to make me tight. After an hour they gave me water and it seems to me that I must have drunk the entire Pasig River dry during the following night. [Marx states the operation was performed under ether anesthesia 3a. He also describes a "spider web of pus-filled ducts and pockets undermining the skin."]
Any immediate danger was over, but he was still far from well....
End 1901 2c:
A second operation was performed on Thanksgiving day [to open residual pus pockets about the rectum 3a], and Taft made ready to return to the United States for recuperation.... [The Tafts left by steamer on Christmas Eve, 1901] The civil governor was very weak.
January-February 1902 2d:
Taft's health was still bothering him; it soon appeared that another operation would be necessary.
March 1902 2e:
Taft went to Cincinnati for the third abscess operation... [The operation was performed by Dr. Hiller Rauschoff and Dr. Frederick Forchheimer, two men well known to Taft 4a.]
August 1902
[Returned to Philippines]
January-March 1903 2f:
Nor was Taft's health any too good. The abscess which had brought him perilously close to death seemed to have healed. But in January, 1903, he attended a Filipino christening during a journey into the hills and came down with indigestion. In March he was suffering from amoebic dysentery, a stubborn and sometimes fatal disease in the tropics. By the end of the month the members of his family in the United States were seriously alarmed; so were President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Root.
late March 1903 2g:
He was, however, inclined to accept [the invitation to become Secretary of War], and this was for the additional reason that amoebic dysentery had been discovered in his system. It was, he said, "a disease which sometimes defies the efforts of the physicians in the tropics." ... At about this time Taft was forced to his bed by the disease...
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.168

    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. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  pp.208-209  b  p.214  c  p.215  d  p.219  e  p.226  f  p.235  g  p.253
  3. Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1960.
    a  p.301

    Comment: Tells great tales, but the book does not cite its sources.

  4. Ross, Ishbel. An American Family: The Tafts - 1678 to 1964. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1964.
    a  p.143

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