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Health of President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy American History The Kennedys Biographies Government Social Studies American Presidents

John F. Kennedy (JFK) was the 35th president of the United States. He served in that capacity from January 20, 1961 to November 22, 1963 (the day he was assassinated).

Never in good health throughout his life, young Jack contracted scarlet fever when he was three years old. Regarding his bout with that illness, the Kennedy Library's biography on the president notes this:

On February 20, 1920 when Jack was not yet three years old, he became sick with scarlet fever, a highly contagious and then potentially life-threatening disease.

His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was terrified that little Jack would die. Mr. Kennedy went to the hospital every day to be by his son’s side, and about a month later Jack took a turn for the better and recovered.

But Jack was never very healthy, and because he was always suffering from one ailment or another his family used to joke about the great risk a mosquito took in biting him – with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die!

The American people were largely unaware of JFK's health issues which included, among others, Addison's Disease.

Until his medical records were released to the public, years later, people (in general) did not know that their president was experiencing more pain (and taking more medications) than one would normally expect from a reasonably healthy individual.

Dr. Jeffrey Kelman, who helped author/historian Robert Dallek with his 2004 biography of President Kennedy, entitled An Unfinished Life, explains what he found after examining JFK’s medical records:

John Kennedy was sick from age 13 on. In 1930, when he was 13, he developed abdominal pain. By 1934 he was sent to the Mayo Clinic where they diagnosed colitis or it was called colitis. By 1940 his back started hurting him, by 1944 he had his first back operation, by 1947 he was officially diagnosed as having Addison’s Disease.

And he was basically sick from then on through the rest of his life. He had two back operations, in ’54 and ’55, which failed. And he needed chronic pain medication from ’55 through his White House years, until he died in Dallas. He was never healthy. I mean, the image you get of vigor and progressive health wasn’t true. He was playing through pain most of the presidency.

Dr. Kelman describes the types of drugs which the President had to take, on a daily basis:

By the time he was president, he was on ten, 12 medications a day.

He was on antispasmodics for his bowel, paregoric, lamodal transatine [ph], he was on muscle relaxants, Phenobarbital, Librium, Meprobomate, he was on pain medications, Codeine, Demerol, Methadone, he was on oral cortisone; he was on injected cortisone, he was on testosterone, he was on Nembutal for sleep. And on top of that he was getting injected sometimes six times a day, six places on his back, by the White House physician, with Novocain, Procaine, just to enable him to face the day.

Dr. Kelman also explains how the President was treated for his Addison’s Disease:

It’s [Addison's Disease] always dangerous; without being supported, patients die. And the steroids themselves have side effects, including susceptibility to infection. Kennedy needed multiple courses of antibiotics, he had urinary infections, skin infections, he had respiratory infections.

Dr. Kelman also examined the President’s X-rays. They revealed significant problems with his back, which caused JFK pain problems throughout his adult life:

He had compression fractures in his low back, he had osteoporosis. He had a lot of surgery.

In 1954, they put a plate in because the pain was so bad he needed, or they felt he needed to have his spine stabilized. It got infected in ’55, they took the plate out. By the late ’50s there were periods had he couldn’t put his own shoes on because he couldn’t bend forward.

...He was on crutches. He couldn’t bend down. There’s one very nice picture of him being lifted up to Air Force One in a cherry picker box with a Secret Service man because he couldn’t walk up the stairs.

Despite his numerous ailments, and the protocol which doctors followed to treat the President, JFK showed few signs of his ill health in public.

Dr. Kelman is convinced that JFK was heroic in the way he managed his public and private life:

...the lesson that I got out of it was that this guy had a real disability, I mean, he was living with a disability which probably would get him federal disability or retirement if he was around today, and it was known.

He was on enough pain medications to disable him. And he survived through it. He came out of it, and he performed at the highest level. (For more information regarding JFK’s medical records, see the PBS article “President Kennedy’s Health Secrets,” published on November 18, 2002. All quotes from Dr. Kelman, featured in this Awesome Story, are taken from that article.)

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 09, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Dec 09, 2016


Media Credits

U.S. National Archives, image 40-1860a.

 

To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Health of President John F. Kennedy" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 09, 2016. Dec 17, 2018.
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