Constitutional crises have not occurred with the eight Presidential deaths in our history. Why? Because the Constitution provides for transfer of power to the Vice President, and because death is unambiguous and permanent.Other reasons to do this
By contrast, only luck has prevented a Constitutional crisis arising from Presidential illness.
Our laws leave most matters of Presidential illness ambiguous. Although the 25th amendment to the Constitution defines what happens after a President is deemed incapacitated by illness, no law defines such illness, or when or how or by whom the medical evaluation for such an illness is performed.
Tour this website, and note the heavy burden of disease that has afflicted our presidents. Recent presidents are no exception. We have been very lucky indeed.
The problem of Presidential illness needs wider discussion. By gathering, in one place, all the medical aspects of our Presidents' lives, I hope to put some urgency behind the discussion, to remind people that serious illness has visited the White House in the past, and will do so again -- unpredictably.
The medical history of Presidents also informs us about:How did I do this?
- The history of medicine
- Human nature
The histories remind us that a Gordian knot entangles the science of medicine and the art of politics at this level of power.
Also: Reading the histories connects us to our Presidents in a very personal way. Sickness is a universal human experience. Reading about sick people makes us see them as people, and identify with them as people, not as remote figures in a history book. Just look at the picture of Jimmy Carter and think about what could have been a genetic time-bomb in his pancreas. Or look at John Tyler and imagine him enduring a mysterious paralytic illness for two long years.
Good historians check primary sources of information. Here, I have taken from what I read.Scope
Historians also track down missing data. If my reading yields sketchy information, I will record what I have, and hope that future reading fills in the gaps.
For those who have a deep interest in Presidential health histories, two books will be of interest:
These books were written for a lay audience by physicians. See the bibliography for more information.
- Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1960. -- This book is untrustworthy, however. Marx does not cite sources, and there is no question that he makes things up. (For example, Dr. Zebra knows the literature on Abraham Lincoln very well, and Marx makes statements that are simply absent from the literature.)
- 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. -- This is mostly trustworthy, but it is worrisome that Marx is occasionally cited.
This web site looks at presidents from the vantage of a physician considering all the aspects of his patient's life that could fall under medical and physiological provenance. Thus, any matter that could potentially relate to a medical sign or symptom is fair game for inclusion. Readers may be surprised how broad this common-sense approach is. For example, there is at least one disease where crying does not produce tears, so it is legitimate to note descriptions of presidential sobbing. Actually, the histories are more than expansive medical histories. They record anything medical having to do with the President, even though it was not an afflicting condition. So, we see that Abraham Lincoln used knowledge about ineffective cures for baldness in order to get rid of a troublesome visitor, and we see that John Tyler's unpopularity led to an epidemic illness, the "Tyler Grippe" being named in his "honor." Certain peripheral issues are collected in a section called "Odds and Ends."