John Kennedy: Denying Addison Disease

Addison disease
Kennedy's Addisonism was diagnosed in 1947 by a physician in London. Kennedy had probably been suffering (literally) from the disease for years, if not decades. After the diagnosis, he was given less than a year to live. He was so ill during the sea voyage home from England, in October 1947, that he was given the last rites 1a. Yet, during the 1960 presidential race, the JFK campaign flatly denied that JFK had Addison disease. The Kennedy campaign used a very narrow definition of Addision disease, namely, insufficiency of the adrenal glands caused by tuberculosis. This was deliberate, calculated, and grossly misleading. Bumgarner calls it "undoubtedly one of the most cleverly laid smoke screens ever put down around a politician" MORE 1b. Adrenal insufficiency, no matter how caused, is a serious matter. SEE BELOW

Dallek reports that "Doctors who treated Jack's Addison's or read closely about his condition have concluded that he had a secondary form of the disease, or a 'slow atrophy of of the adrenal glands,' rather than a rapid primary destruction" 2a. Dallek is hinting that Kennedy's Addisonism was due to chronic use of steroids, but he does not take a stand.

While a U.S. Senator, Kennedy underwent major surgery on his back even though the effects of Addison disease on the tolerance of surgery was largely unknown at the time. 3. In fact, JFK's case was published in the medical literature in 1955, although this was not publicly realized until 1967 4a. Post-operatively, he developed a urinary tract infection and had a transfusion reaction, characterized by "mild angioneurotic edema." He also had a repeat operation four months later 3.

During the campaign, the following statement from JFK's doctors and coworkers was issued by Robert Kennedy 1b:
John F. Kennedy has not, nor has he ever, had an ailment described classically as Addison's disease, which is tuberculous destruction of the adrenal gland. Any statement to the contrary is malicious and false. ... In the post-war period he had some mild adrenal insufficiency and this is not in any way a dangerous condition. And it is possible that even this might be corrected over the years since ACTH stimulation tests for adrenal function was [sic] considered normal in 1958. Doctors have stated that this condition might have arisen out of his wartime experiences of shock and malaria.
The main problems with this statement are, of course:
  • Kennedy's post-war adrenal insufficiency can hardly be called "mild" given that he received the last rights.

  • Nor, for the same reason, can it be reasonably described as "not in any way a dangerous condition."
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  pp.240-241  b  p.243

    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. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.
    a  pp.105
  3. Nicholas JA, Burstein CL, Umberger CJ, Wilson PD. Management of adrenocortical insufficiency during surgery. Archives of Surgery. 1955;71:737-742.

    Comment: JFK is case 3

  4. Cooper, Pauline. The Medical Detectives. New York: David McKay, 1973.
    a  p.209

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