The Hidden Truth about Presidential Health


With the current pandemic going on and President Trump testing positive for COVID-19 recently, many health-related questions arise such as: How have serious presidential health conditions affected presidential performance throughout US history? As we know the president holds much power, so a president’s health should be of high priority not only for his own wellbeing but for the public’s as well. As a result, major health problems are significant as these issues most likely will have some kind of effect on the president’s ability to lead the country successfully. 

For my research, I narrowed down presidential health to focus on significant life threatening conditions specifically crisis issues and chronic problems. Nine presidents chosen by me will be analyzed including: Grover Cleveland, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Donald J. Trump. I used presidential biographies as primary sources as well as other relevant secondary sources for my research and found that the serious health problems did indeed influence and even hinder the president’s ability to perform his duties as president. For example, in many cases the presidents were too weak after their illnesses, so much so, they required assistance for simple activities like writing and walking. Yet most of this information was still purposely hidden from the public at the time of the president’s term.

What We Now Know

Grover Cleveland

President Grover Cleveland -
Newspaper rumors of Cleveland’s Cancer –
Casts of Cleveland’s top jaw –

Grover Cleveland is known as the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms, however, his health complications which lead to a secret surgery are less known. In the beginning of his second term, Cleveland noticed a rough spot on the roof of his mouth. This was later examined by doctors to be a malignant tumor which required to be removed by surgery. Cleveland agreed to undergo surgery as long as it would be kept a secret from the public as he did not want there to be concerns of his condition which would deem him unfit for office. He decided to have the surgery performed on his friend’s yacht where a surgical team conducted his surgery. Later when rumors arose about his surgery, Cleveland’s White House aides reported it as only a tooth removal hiding the fact that “five teeth, about a third of the upper palate, and a large piece of the upper left jawbone” was removed (Cato, 2020). Cleveland then required a second surgery which also took place on the yacht to avoid the press from gaining any new information. After the surgery, Cleveland’s speech was affected, he lost some of his hearing, and became irritable and without energy which ultimately affected his presidency as most of his party abandoned him.  

William Howard Taft

President Taft –

This image of Taft shows his obesity which was his major health concern. Back in the early 1900s obesity was even less common than today, yet Taft struggled to maintain his weight despite benign under a strict doctor’s advice.This further caused additional problems like sleepiness which affected his daily life as president.

Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson’s wife helping him with his work –
Newspaper reporting of Wilson’s illness –×236.jpg

Mid his second presidency in 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Before he was elected president, he suffered two strokes which damaged his left middle cerebral artery blocking the control movement and sensation to his contralateral extremities and almost left him blind in his left eye. He also had a history of cerebrovascular disorders. Wilson’s strokes left him unable to use his right hand but he covered the truth about his condition by simply suggesting he was writing too much. He consulted several doctors, who urged him to take a few months of rest, however, Wilson did not take this advice or stop with his vigorous hard work. Instead he made a habit of denying that there was anything seriously wrong with his health. Wilson’s disorders rose the most when he was under great stress. As his health worsened, his doctor, Dr. Grayson and his second wife, Edith decided to hide how serious his conditions truly were to protect his reputation. As a result, Edith took over Wilson’s presidential  duties and although Wilson was sick, no one was really aware of this until after his term.

Warren G. Harding

President Harding –
Harding’s funeral –

Harding died of a stroke during his presidency, not even completing the full term. He experienced shortness of breath, chest pain, and difficulty breathing which were all signs of his congestive heart disease. He also suffered from neurasthenia, a nervous condition. One of Harding’s doctor’s Charles Sawyer, whom the president favored, prescribed him with strong  laxatives and heart stimulants including the use of arsenic which was common at the time. The doctor even commented on the president’s health by saying the president was “feeling fit and in splendid physical trim” when on his trip to Alaska from which he died soon after (Greenspan, 2013). The public was confused at the unexpected death of the President since they were not aware of this health problems beforehand.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Roosevelt on crutches –
Roosevelt going down stairs –
FDR greeting the public while holding tightly to the railing for support –

FDR was diagnosed with the polio disease which left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. This meant he could not stand or walk without support and required the use of a wheelchair. He also suffered from heart failure, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and acute bronchitis. Roosevelt tried to hide his condition from the public by carefully arranging every appearance he had with government officials or the public. He only allowed for himself to be photographed sitting or standing while firmly fastened to a podium or holding onto someone for support.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower escorted from the hospital after having surgery for bowel obstruction –

Shortly after beginning his term, Eisenhower experienced a massive heart attack in 1955 which was linked to hypertension, pericarditis, and a left ventricular aneurysm. The following year he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and even had an emergency surgery in his small intestine due to it. While Eisenhower slowly recovered the surgery, afterwards he experienced extreme spikes in his blood pressure. With a normal blood pressure below 120/80, the president’s blood pressure spiked to 160/90 in 1959, 190/60 in 1960, and even as high as 245/120 in later years. This often resulted with Eisenhower having sudden temper episodes and even strokes. Unlike other presidents, Eisenhower released information about his illness to the public, however, he “manipulated his medical team, safeguarded his image, cajoled his staff, confused the press, managed his advisers, dominated his party, and ran a campaign that was virtually impossible for the opposition to counteract”. It is clear Eisenhower was not willing to give up his presidency despite his medical ailments. 

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy relying on crutches –
JFK after his spinal surgery –

While John F. Kennedy had many health complications before his presidency this intensified even more during his presidency. He suffered from chronic back pain due to being born with a congenital deformity which made his one leg shorter than the other. Other health issues included severe stomach, colon, prostate, and adrenal problems. However, the most intense was his back pain which he had surgery for and a huge amount of prescription medications yet the pain lingered with him daily. Kennedy went to various doctors, even ending up finding treatment from practitioner Max Jacobson, who used unorthodox tactics and illicit drugs to treat the president. While taking these heavy doses of drugs helped relieve his back pain for some time it also resulted in many side effects such as mood swings, nervousness, and impaired judgement. Another issue with his treatment was the dangerous and risky nature of the procedure  For example, one of his doctors, Janet Travell, gave him injections of procaine into his back, which while provided immediate but temporary relief, was very dangerous considering if the shot was not given in exactly the right place in the spine, it could paralyze a person for life. All of these health issues ultimately affected Kennedy’s important decision making abilities yet he tried to keep his medical conditions a secret from the public throughout his presidency. Members of the President’s staff worked hard to contain any public leaks of information about the severity of Kennedy’s illnesses.

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan holding a meeting with his advisers while in the hospital after his colon cancer surgery –

In 1981, Reagan underwent an immediate emergency surgery after being shot close to his heart at a speaking event. A few years later he underwent a second major abdominal surgery which removed a cancerous polyp in his colon. Then he had a basal cell carcinoma, skin cancer on his nose removed. For the remaining of this term, he continued to have regular tests and removals of additional polyps that arose. 

Donald J. Trump

President Trump leaving the hospital after having COVID-19 –
Doctors who treated Trump at Walter Reed Hospital tell reporters about the President’s health condition –

President Trump announced his and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 via Twitter. This action stood out from previous presidents in that he was very straightforward about his health condition. However, despite the many Twitter updates that followed, the public still held much doubt in the truth of them.  

Academic Findings

There is a long history of official lies regarding presidential health. When researchers focus on presidential health, they agree that presidents often use deception against the public to hide their true state of wellbeing (Clementson, 2020). Historian, Robert Dallek explains this through analyzing FDR, he states: “FDR managed to keep the public mostly in the dark about his partial paralysis from polio, aided by camera-snatching Secret Service agents who wouldn’t allow photos of the president in a wheelchair.” (Cato Institute, 2020) Yet, public opinion polls show that citizens want to be more aware of the details of the candidate’s health.  


One common theme seen throughout these nine presidents and their health conditions is they all tried to hide or diminish their ailments to some extent. While some presidents like Cleveland and Wilson, tried to completely hide their severe health problems from the public, others were more open about it like FDR, Taft, Reagan, and Trump. Starting with President Cleveland, his secret surgery on a yacht and disappearance from the public was very worrying because not only did the President lie about going on a four-day fishing trip (while instead he was going to get his surgery done) but he also took huge risks with his health by having the surgery on a moving boat. When rumors later arose about Cleveland’s secret surgery, he denied all such allegations but the public was suspicious nonetheless. Moving on Reagan experienced several cancers which required many medical procedures to remove polyps from his colon and nose. Since his cancers were often recurring this would also worry the American citizens about the health of their president. Many presidents tried to hide that they had cancer since that carried a stigma back then, however, this could also have been a disadvantage for the president as it portrayed him being weak and not transparent with the public. Americans might lose trust in their president if they see him hiding something of importance. President Taft experienced the least severe health conditions compared to the other presidents, yet his extreme obesity made him a place of jokes. This might cause people to lose credibility for the president or more worry about his well-being. More intensely, the case with Woodrow Wilson when his major stroke left him almost completely incapacitated for the remainder of his term and to hide this his wife, Edith, acted as president on his behalf. The alarming part is the public, was completely unaware of this the entire time. Onto JFK, who created an atmosphere or vitality and youth around himself only to be covered up lies about his massive health problems, from issues with Addison’s disease to severe back problems requiring large doses or medication.

In all cases, the public must be kept informed of the president’s health conditions no matter how severe they are because the president is not like any average person, he has an important role of representing the country and therefore, cannot keep his health a secret from the public.


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By: Roksolana Salamakha