Stroke and the American Presidency

By Meschia, James; Safirstein, Beth Emy et al. | The Saturday Evening Post, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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Stroke and the American Presidency


Meschia, James, Safirstein, Beth Emy, Biller, Jose, The Saturday Evening Post


John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, had a traumatic right brachial plexus injury as a child but was otherwise neurologically intact until he suffered his first stroke at the age of 79. On November 10, 1846, Dr. George Parkman was escorting him on a tour of the Harvard School of Medicine when he collapsed and became unresponsive. He regained consciousness and made a near-total recovery. Adams' family doctor, John Bigelow, diagnosed a slight stroke.

On February 21, 1848, he suffered his second and final stroke. Adams attempted to address the Congress on the Mexican War. After he arose, he fell into the arms of a colleague. His consciousness waxed and waned, and he died on February 23, 1848.

John Tyler

John Tyler, the tenth president, was in poor health throughout most of his life. Lacking confidence in the medical profession, Tyler chose to relieve his ailments by homeopathic means. He developed intermittent bouts of dizziness and vomiting. They were so frequent that he chose to ignore them. In January of 1862, Mr. Tyler was staying at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond when he felt dizzy, nauseated, and vomited bile. Later, he went down to the hotel dining room for a cup of tea to alleviate his symptoms. There he slumped to the floor, unconscious. Tyler eventually regained consciousness and was ordered to strict bed rest. On January 17, 1862, he awoke gasping for air and, shortly thereafter, died. Retrospectively, the bouts of dizziness may have been recurrent posterior circulation transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, never drank nor smoked. His one identifiable stroke risk factor was obesity. After his morning shave on February 13, 1874, Fillmore suffered his first stroke. His left hand dropped to his side, powerless. Paralysis continued to spread to the left side of his face and then to the larynx and pharynx. He showed some short-term recovery, but two weeks later another stroke completely paralyzed his left side, and he had severe dysphagia. Millard remained bedridden and showed minimal recovery before he died on March 8, 1874.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, the 17th president, reportedly drank mint juleps and whiskey. Some believe that his inauguration speech was rambling because of ethanol intoxication. On July 30, 1875, he suffered a fatal stroke. He was visiting his daughter's family. They had finished lunch, and he retired to an armchair. As he sat in the chair, he and his granddaughter spoke. She turned to leave the room. Before she reached the door, she heard the sound of Johnson falling to the floor. He was initially conscious and had left hemiparesis [paralysis]. The family was forbidden to call a physician. The following day, the stroke paralyzed his entire body, and he lapsed into unconsciousness. His family notified a physician. The recommendation was to bleed Andrew Johnson. He died two hours later.

Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st president, was obese, consumed fine wines and after-dinner liqueurs, and led a sedentary lifestyle. He was diagnosed by the Surgeon General as having Bright's disease. During his term, his health deteriorated. In early 1886, he developed heart trouble. He had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was found in bed on the morning of November 17, 1886, unconscious and with left hemiparesis. He died the next day.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, was born in 1856 and died in 1924. In his early childhood, he was prone to illness. The stress and activities of school overwhelmed Wilson, and he suffered a total collapse in the winter of 1880. Problems with abdominal discomfort and prolonged headaches beset him at the University of Virginia and followed him throughout his life. Freud, et.al., documented 14 times during his career when nervousness, dyspepsia, and headaches became severe enough to interfere with his work.

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