Eight presidents have died in office. Four died of illness and four were the victims of an assassin’s gun. The most recent death – that of John F. Kennedy – occurred in 1963. Whilst medicine had made major strides since then, it was still nowhere near what it is today. Historians have mused whether the assassinated presidents could have lived if things had been done differently. The same is not always said for those who died of diseases.
Here we take a look at the eight unfortunate gentlemen who didn’t leave office alive. We ask if modern medicine could have saved them.
William Henry Harrison
- Death: 1841
- Age: 68
- Cause of Death: Pneumonia or Typhoid
- Would He Have Survived?: Yes
The cause of William Henry Harrison’s death is contentious. For years, historians commonly accepted that Harrison died of pneumonia. To this day, many people accept the incorrect story that Harrison died after giving his inauguration speech in poor weather. Whilst he did fall ill, this was not the immediate cause of death.
Washington, DC is often called a swamp, and it’s true. That’s what it was before building work began. Harrison had a nasty habit of taking long walks in harsh conditions. Probably not a good idea today, definitely not a good idea back in 1841.
The pneumonia would have occurred too late to be directly caused by the Inauguration. As was said, Harrison liked a good walk. It was this that led to pneumonia, for Harrison had walked in wet weather without a raincoat and didn’t change his clothes when he got back to the White House. The latter is what made George Washington deathly ill back in 1799.
The case against pneumonia continues with Harrison’s symptoms. His lungs did not get too bad until a week into the illness. His stomach caused more trouble – he had severe cramps and diarrhea. The water supply to the White House in 1841 was diluted with sewage and bacteria. It is very likely that Harrison, who had a history of stomach problems, could have picked something up from the White House.
Medical professionals and historians diagnose typhoid as a likely cause of death. This correlates with his symptoms and the water supply. It was not until nearly a decade later that the truth about the White House’s water was discovered. It’s therefore conceivable that physicians did not just think of it as a cause.
- Survival? – Pneumonia and typhoid are much rarer in the developed world these days, but both are perfectly treatable. Vaccinations for typhoid exist for travelers. Cases, both early and serious, can be treated with antibiotics. Deaths in the developed world are extremely rare. Pneumonia is treated by antibiotics and rest, with hospitalisation for serious cases. If Harrison had caught pneumonia or typhoid today, he would have survived. 68 is slightly on the older side, but by no means an indicator of fatality.
- Death: 1850
- Age: 65
- Cause of Death: Stomach disease/cholera
- Would He Have Survived?: Yes
Zachary Taylor’s cause of death is definitely a little mystery. Whatever it was, it was definitely a stomach complaint.
The water supply in Washington was the leading cause of Taylor’s early demise. He’d enjoyed raw fruit washed down by copious amounts of iced milk at a 4th of July party. Symptoms included cramps, nausea and diarrhea. Taylor got progressively sicker before he died five days later.
At the time, medical professionals suggested cholera morbus, a type of gastroenteritis. Years later, historians and medical folks are still unconvinced. Whilst a lot of evidence points to this, there’s still no definitive proof. They don’t know what it is – it could be just generally poor health.
Rumours of an assassination led to his body being tested for arsenic years later. Slightly high levels were seen as normal and did not indicate poisoning.
- Survival? – If Taylor had got it today, he’d be ok. Stomach illnesses, can be nasty but they’re treatable. Cholera is still a nasty disease, but is again treatable and there is a vaccination available for travellers.
- Death: 1865
- Age: 57
- Cause of Death: Gunshot at back of head
- Would He Have Survived?: No, would have severe deficits if he did
The first assassination of a sitting President was a huge shock to the American peoples, especially as the civil war wounded down. Unlike Harrison and Taylor, it’s pretty clear what killed Abraham Lincoln.
John Wilkes Booth’s bullet hit the left side of Lincoln’s head, went through his brain, and settled in the front of the skull. Lincoln immediately slumped over and would never regain consciousness. Doctors at his deathbed knew that they would not be able to save him. Removing blood clots improved his bleeding but his injuries were too severe, surgery could kill him and the bullet was in an awkward position.
Lincoln died nine hours after the shooting.
- Survival? – Being shot in the head with the bullet going through your brain isn’t ideal in any century. Even the best neurosurgeons couldn’t do anything. The factors that caused his death caused his mortality. Too much brain tissue was destroyed and his lack of consciousness was not a good sign. Some doctors, such as Dr. Thomas Scalea of Maryland, maintain that Lincoln would have lived with modern medicine. Surgery would have relieved the pressure on his brain and antibiotics would have helped the infection. This is highly unlikely- Lincoln’s injuries were far too severe. If he did somehow survive, Lincoln would have severe deficits. This would have meant he had to resign the presidency and receive full time care. Care for the disabled was very poor and he still could have died from resulting issues.
James A. Garfield
- Death: 1881
- Age: 49
- Cause of Death: Septic shock and infection
- Would He Have Survived? – Yes.
James A. Garfield had been in office only a little longer than William Henry Harrison had been when the assassin’s bullet hit him. Garfield was hit by two bullets – the first skimmed his shoulder but the second hit his back and rested behind his pancreas. Unlike Lincoln, he was conscious and responding well when initially hit. Doctors were cautious but after he survived the night, they felt as though he would be fine.
Garfield’s bullet was in a non-life threatening era but it was not medicated properly. Doctors insisted that the bullet was on the other side of the body from where it actually was. Furthermore, the knowledge of germs was extremely low. Doctors were considered to be gentlemen and thus did not need to clean their hands. These doctors used their bare hands to prod at the bullet site. This caused an infection.
Garfield was in limbo for over three months. Some days he was fine, but most days he struggled with illness. The cabinet saw him only once and the public did not know how truly bad he was. Vice President Arthur refused to take the reins as he was already unpopular – assassin Charles Guiteau had wanted him as president.
In early September 1881, Garfield was moved to New Jersey in hopes it would do him better. Unfortunately, his condition quickly declined. A multitude of illnesses had hit him but it was an infection, likely caused by medical negligence, that finally did him in. Garfield had a long, slow death and was in pain until the very end.
- Survival? – If Garfield was shot today, he’d survive. Simply put, doctors know about a little thing called germ theory. Garfield would be rushed to a hospital where they’d be a scan to determine the bullet’s location. Treatment would occur and infections would be subdued. Without being prodded around and having the location of the bullet wrongly identified, Garfield would recover. Interestingly, Alexander Graham-Bell used a metal detector prototype to help find the bullet. This didn’t work for two reasons- one being the doctor insisting that the bullet was on a certain side and the second being that Garfield’s bed had metal springs. Guiteau, the assassin, proclaimed that he’d merely shot Garfield and that it was the doctors who had killed him. Half true, but it didn’t get him out of the death penalty.
- Death: 1901
- Age: 58
- Cause of Death: Gangrene
- Would He Have Survived?: 50-50
William McKinley was shaking hands at an event when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him at close range. One bullet was deflected by a coat button but a second bullet hit the stomach. A bleeding McKinley was taken to the hospital. This hospital was rudimentary, with no surgeons or an operating theatre. It also had little surgical equipment. McKinley was still conscious as doctors arrived. They decided to take the bullet out immediately. In a dimmed room with little equipment, they could not find the bullet.
McKinley awoke after the surgery in good spirits. For the next few days, he was talkative and mentally clear. The nation rejoiced as it believed its President would E soon recover. McKinley rested in bed as the cabinet officials who’d rushed to Buffalo headed home. This included Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who headed back to his vacation in New York.
On the September 13, McKinley’s condition suddenly deteriorated. Roosevelt was called back from his trip. It soon became clear that McKinley was dying and nothing could be done. The President was calm as the end neared, whilst his frail wife Ida broke down. McKinley died early the next morning.
McKinley wasn’t directly killed by the bullet. His pancreas has become necrotic, gangrene had spread in his stomach and his heart was weakened by a previously unknown cardiac issue. An autopsy showed this, but the bullet was never found due to Ida’s insistence on finishing it.
- Survival? – Had McKinley received medical care today, he’d probably be okay. As discussed before, doctors know how to treat gunshot wounds. His case, however, is not as hopeful as Garfield’s. The bullet had penetrated his stomach and as far as being shot goes, the stomach isn’t the best area. His weakened heart may have made surgery a lot riskier.
Warren G. Harding
- Death: 1923
- Age: 57
- Cause of Death: Heart attack
- Would He Have Survived?: Likely
Harding had been in poor health for some time when a demanding tour of Alaska and the West Coast was planned. Whilst Harding and his wife Florence were desperate to go to Alaska, the President worried about the punishing schedule. Harding felt tired in Canada but it wasn’t until they hit mainland America that it got worse. His stomach started to hurt in Seattle and this necessitated cancelling some events in Portland.
They arrived in San Francisco, where Harding had to be helped into the hotel after collapsing. Doctors said that he had pneumonia, heart and possibly food poisoning. Symptoms included chest pain and indigestion. Heart medication was used and the rest seemed to do him good. Harding was sitting up in bed in the evening whilst his wife read the newspaper aloud. He suddenly convulsed and dropped onto the bed. Florence called for help but there was nothing to be done.
The stated cause of death alternated between a stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage. Physicians at the time knew very little about heart attacks. Symptoms often vary- it’s not just clutching the chest and stomach pain is often a sign. It wasn’t until later years that it was finally accepted that Harding died of a heart attack.
- Survival? – Doctors recognize the signs of heart attacks and can treat them quickly. Had Harding been in the modern age then he would have had the correct care. His heart condition may have been noticed beforehand and preventative measures could have been taken. It’s believed his death may have been hastened by the acts of his long time homeopathic doctor, a man who didn’t have a medical license.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Death: 1945
- Age: 63
- Cause of Death: Cerebral hemorrhage
- Would He Have Survived?: Very unlikely
Franklin D. Roosevelt was in poor health for many years, but his illnesses were made more pronounced in his fourth term as President. His gaunt appearance surprised Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, as well as Americans when he returned home. FDR was in his personal retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a bad headache and collapsed. FDR never regained consciousness and died two hours later. He had a cerebral hemorrhage.
- Survival? – Cerebral hemorrhages can be treated but they’ve only got a 20% survival rate. FDR was not in a hospital when it happened and never regained consciousness. He was also an incredibly poorly man- he was exhausted from the presidency, had hypertension and cardiac issues among other things. Even today, it wouldn’t be a good outcome.
John F. Kennedy
- Death: 1963
- Age: 46
- Cause of Death: Gunshot wound to the head
- Would He Have Survived?: No
John F. Kennedy was riding in an open top car when he was hit by two shots. The first hit his back, travelled through his neck and lung before coming out of his throat. He was straightened up by his back brace. The second hit the back of his head, travelled through his skull and came out the side of his head. Parts of his brain and skull spilled over into the car.
Kennedy and Governor Connally were rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. When Kennedy arrived at the hospital it was clear that he was mortally wounded. Nevertheless, doctors did try to work on him. They performed a tracheotomy in an attempt to get him breathing and entered fluids through an IV. His heart was then manually massaged in an attempt to get it restarting. Nothing worked. After 12 minutes inside the trauma room, Kennedy was pronounced dead without ever having woken up.
- Survival? – Considering how his brains and skull were blown out, it’s pretty clear that not even the most elite surgeons could do anything today. The back of his right cerebral hemisphere was gone. His cerebellum fell out of his head. Even if the wound hadn’t been as severe as it was, Kennedy wasn’t the most stable of patients. He was a medical nightmare to say the least. Over his life, he’d had the last rites said five times and had been hospitalized several dozen times. His back surgery caused a staph infection that nearly killed him. Most worrying of all was Addison’s disease. It is an autoimmune disorder that doubles the mortality rate of those who suffer from it. Surgery could be a risk for Kennedy.