As many American’s celebrate Presidents’ Day, SRxA’s Word on Health has been musing about the health of America’s founding father. Although George Washington was physically strong, he was not the indominatable human force that popular history paints. He was often sick, particularly with infections. These were serious infections, many of them life-threatening.
Our research reveals that over the course of his lifetime, Washington suffered from diphtheria, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, dysentery, quinsy, pneumonia and epiglottitis. In later life, he had dental problems, progressive deafness, short-sightedness and infertility.
From the age of 17 to almost the end of his life, Washington had recurrent attacks of malaria. Malaria was then common in Virginia. Interestingly, an effective treatment for malaria had been discovered in the previous century. But, for some reason, Washington did not receive the treatment until 1784, when he was in his 50s.
At age 19 Washington spent time on Barbados. Around this time George developed a severe case of smallpox, which ultimately left his skin scarred for life. Shortly after returning from Barbados, Washington developed tuberculosis.
Washington had a tendency to become depressed when ill. He was haunted by premonitions of death, perhaps because his father and half-brother both died prematurely. Thomas Jefferson wrote that Washington was, in all aspects of his life, “inclined to gloomy apprehensions.”
In 1759 Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. He was 26, she was a 28 year old widow who had borne four children during her previous marriage. Martha never became pregnant during her 40-year marriage to Washington. Given her previous fertility, it could well be concluded that the difficulty was not with her but with her husband.
Washington’s height, sterility, large hands, pockmarks, plus certain personality features and even his well-documented dental problems have led to the suggestion he had XYY syndrome.
By middle age Washington had no teeth left. Washington’s clumsy, ill-fitting dentures distorted his lips. This undoubtedly contributed to his dour expression.
No one is quite sure what killed Washington. He was in fine health at age 67 when he developed hoarseness and a sore throat. There was little alarm until he awoke in the middle of the night with difficulty breathing, almost unable to talk. A doctor was summoned, but Washington did not wait, ordering an employee to bleed him. The doctor arrived and, according to the principles of the day, bled him again. Eventually, Washington requested no further bleeding be performed, but he was bled again anyway. The bleedings inflicted by Washington’s doctors hastened his end. Some 80 ounces of blood (about 35% of his total blood volume) were removed in 12 hours.
One of the three doctors attending him objected to continued bleeding, arguing instead for tracheotomy which would have been life-saving in epiglottitis. However, back then this treatment was considered experimental and dangerous.
Nevertheless, a fourth physician, arrived at Mount Vernon the day after Washington died. The doctor hoped that Washington was in a suspended state, from which he could be aroused and then treated with tracheotomy. It was proposed that the body be thawed gradually, first in cool water and then with warm blankets and rubbing of the skin, with the subsequent performance of a tracheotomy, artificial respiration at the tracheotomy site, and transfusion of lamb’s blood.
Sadly, we will never know if this would have worked as Martha Washington vetoed the plan!