Ail to the Chief

A couple of weeks ago, when he went to the White House with a group of fellow scholars, Robert Ferrell thought President Bush looked weary.

Of course, Ferrell may have more acute antennae for this sort of thing than most. The Indiana University historian is the author of “Ill-Advised: Presidential Health and Public Trust,” a study of presidential health--and the lack of it--published this fall.

Bush spoke briefly to the group that included Ferrell. He “looked tired and he shouldn’t have been there,” Ferrell says, noting that in the throes of a reelection campaign Bush had better things to do. “This was a bunch of scholars. If I were organizing his time, I’d get him out of these dog shows.”

Indeed, Ferrell believes Presidents should not only guard their health by getting plenty of rest. They should be wary of their doctors, too, he asserts, noting that physicians have helped kill at least two Presidents.


For instance, Warren G. Harding’s doctor was “grossly incompetent” and did not recognize that Harding was suffering from heart failure. He prescribed soda water and colored pills for the ailing Chief Magistrate. The public was told Harding suffered from indigestion, Ferrell writes.

Harding died suddenly.

Cause of death was listed as a stroke or “apoplexy.” Ferrell says his sleuthing turned up heart attack as the more likely cause of death. An autopsy found Harding’s heart to be grossly enlarged, Ferrell explains.

Then there is the case of James A. Garfield, who was shot by an assassin in 1881 and survived--only to be turned over to doctors who made him the victim of “gross medical negligence,” according to Ferrell. Garfield, who took two months to die, was not helped by the fact that when they tried to remove the bullet, doctors probed the wound with unsterilized instruments and their fingers.


“They converted the entry cavity from a finger-length (wound) . . . to a puss-oozing canal twenty inches deep,” Ferrell reports.

Or consider poor William Henry Harrison, who got pneumonia delivering his inaugural speech in 1841. Ferrell writes that Harrison “entrusted himself to the doctors, who did their worst, prescribing suction cups, stinging ointments, cathartics of calomel and castor oil, followed by more calomel, rhubarb, and ipecac, then opium, camphor, and brandy, topped off with a Seneca Indian recipe of crude petroleum and Virginia snakeweed.”

Harrison chose not to live for further treatment.

“Ill-Advised” also covers other presidential health matters, including John F. Kennedy’s much-publicized Addison’s Disease, Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attacks and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s severe cardiovascular disease.


The historian is concerned that in both cases the public was misled or lied to about the nature of each President’s condition.

As for George Bush and challenger Bill Clinton, Ferrell thinks both are in pretty good health.

But it is impossible to ever be certain, he adds.