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Peruse the Weird Medical History of Every Single U.S. President

From John Adams's baldness to James Madison's frostbite to Herbert Hoover's handshake problems, learn about the ailments of the presidents

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Benjamin Harrison developed "ptomaine poisoning" during the Civil War. He also had to wear gloves at all times due to contact dermatitis. Herbert Hoover badly burned his foot as a kid by stepping on an iron in his father's blacksmith shop. James Madison got frostbrite.

President are people, and they struggled with the same illnesses and bad habits as the rest of us. And this one website chronicles them all—the weird bodily ailments of every United States President. The site might not be the prettiest, but it's got all the information there. From John Adams's baldness to Herbert Hoover's problem with performing his handshaking duties. Seriously:

The annual White House reception, in which Hoover had to shake hands with thousands of visitors, was a problem. His hand was at times so swollen that he could not write for days. Once he received a bad cut from a diamond ring that was turned inward; the reception was abruptly halted.

The list also has serious ailments like throat cancer, scarlet fever and sudden death.

You can also sort by organ system, and see just which presidents had trouble with eyes, ears, hair and heart. Surprisingly, while 16 presidents are listed as having problems with alcohol (John Quincy Adams,  Martin van Buren, William Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James BuchananAndrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush), only two are listed as having liver problems (Zachary Taylor and  John Kennedy).

The list is curated by the pseudonymous Doctor Zebra (the Dr. is real, the Zebra is not, he or she writes). The doctor explains why:

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.

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.


Doctor Zebra has also created pages comparing the risk of mad cow disease to the risk of a heart attack, hinting how to become an cosmonaut, and displaying a periodic table of hellish items.

More from Smithsonian.com:

U.S. Presidents
The Stalking of the President

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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