Fourth of July: American Presidents and Infectious Diseases

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and MuseumToday’s post is by History of Vaccines intern Alexandra Linn.

Happy Fourth of July! In honor of this historic holiday we’ve compiled a list showing how infectious diseases and vaccines have affected the lives of our most heralded leaders – the American presidents. These concise accounts are evidence that diseases can strike anyone, anywhere at any time, and even in the White House.

George Washington (1789-97)

The first president of the United States witnessed more epidemics of infectious disease than any other, so much so that PBS NewsHour published a blog post entitled “The Nine Deadly Diseases That Plagued George Washington.”

In 1751, a 19-year-old Washington traveled to visit his half-brother who was sick with tuberculosis in Barbados. While visiting, George came down with smallpox but fully recovered despite a few scars. Unfortunately, his tubercular half-brother could not overcome his disease and passed away in 1752.

In 1793, yellow fever hit Philadelphia in what is now regarded as one of the most notorious epidemics of the disease in history. Washington had to flee along with much of the city’s population to remain safely free of yellow fever.

Washington is thought to have been a victim of diphtheria around the age of 15 and malaria at the age of 17. He was a frequent victim Life of George Washington The Christian. Painted by Stearns. Lith. by Reigner. NLMof dysentery, or bloody diarrhea, while serving in the French and Indian War and other battles. Washington is also thought to have been a victim of quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle (a large potentially cancerous bump on his face), epiglottitis (a throat infection that can be caused by Haemophilus influenzae bacteria),  and pneumonia.  

Washington’s death may have been partly the result of epiglottitis following a cold. He died at the age of 67 on December 14, 1799, after having survived his fair share of diseases.

John Adams (1797-1801)

Adams’s  wife, Abigail, acquired typhoid fever in October of 1818, which led to her death on the 28th of the month.

Adams did undergo smallpox variolation; he describes the process and results this way:

“In the Winter of 1764, the Small Pox prevailing in Boston, I went with my Brother into Town and was inocculated under the Direction of Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and Dr. Joseph Warren. This Distemper was very terrible even by Inocculation at that time. My Physicians dreaded it, and prepared me, by a milk Diet and a Course of Mercurial Preparations, till they reduced me very low before they performed the operation. They continued to feed me with Milk and Mercury through the whole Course of it, and salivated me to such a degree, that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger. By such means they conquered the Small Pox, which I had very lightly, but they rendered me incapable … of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington, who attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”— John Adams, Autobiography Part 1

Interestingly enough, Adams was the first president approached about the discovery of vaccination. In 1800, Benjamin Waterhouse, a strong advocate and frequent correspondent of Edward Jenner, wrote to President Adams, his former roommate, about the new practice of using cowpox as a preventative for smallpox. Adams, however, did not respond and Waterhouse was forced to try again by contacting the more receptive vice-president Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson  (1801-09)

In 1806, following Waterhouse’s correspondence about Jenner’s innovation, Jefferson advocated for the practice in America. In fact, after learning about the discovery, Jefferson invited Indian chiefs into Washington to teach them the practice – using pictures and translated instructions.

Andrew Jackson (1829-37)

At age 14, Jackson contracted smallpox while being held prisoner by the British during the War of Independence. Jackson recovered and later became the seventh president of the United States but his brother Robert, who also contracted the disease while imprisoned, died.

Martin Van Buren (1837-41)

In 1807, Van Buren married his childhood sweetheart Hannah Hoes. Hannah fell victim to tuberculosis and died in 1819 after having four sons. Her death was devastating to Van Buren and he never remarried.

William Henry Harrison (1841)

Harrison was the first president to die in office after contracting pneumonia — only one month after his inauguration in 1841.

James K. Polk (1845-49)

Polk served only one term in office but died of cholera three months after returning home to Tennessee in 1849.

Zachary Taylor (1849-50)

Although perhaps not an infectious disease, this one occurred on July 4, 1850!!

Taylor was the second president to die in office. While traveling in the summer of 1849, Taylor came down with violent diarrhea and fever. Although he recovered, he came down with similar symptoms a year later on the July 4, when he was diagnosed as having “cholera morbus” or gastroenteritis. Four days later Taylor died following extensive diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pains.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)

The famous first line, “Four score and seven years ago,” part of the Gettysburg Address, was delivered hours before Lincoln began feeling weak and feverish. A few days later, Lincoln came down with full-blown smallpox and remained ill for around four weeks. Lincoln recovered from his bout although his valet, who also contracted the disease, did not. 

Chester A.  Arthur (1881-85)

Arthur’s wife Ellen (Nell) Arthur died of pneumonia at age 42– a few years before Arthur was inaugurated as president.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)

A president of the famed “Gilded Age,” Harrison died of pneumonia in 1901.

Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)

The 1919 Nobel Peace Prize winner is said to have become ill from the 1918 Spanish Influenza while he was in France helping to end WWI with the Treaty of Versailles. The 1918 influenza pandemic had a great effect on World War I, leaving many soldiers dead of flu rather than guns or gases.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)

In August 1921, budding statesman Franklin Delano Roosevelt fell ill with polio during a visit to his family’s summer retreat in Canada. His legs remained paralyzed and he had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life (he refused to be photographed in his paralyzed state to avoid rumors of weakness and debility).

Roosevelt’s personal experience with polio became one of the most important aspects of the efforts to develop a vaccine. In 1938, Roosevelt became the icon of the “March of Dimes,” a grass-roots fundraising effort where people all over the country sent dimes to the president to help fund the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Over the years the March of Dimes raised millions of dollars: the fruit of their efforts was Jonas Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine, tested in 1954 on 2 million children or “polio pioneers,” and Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962.

Gerald Ford (1974-77)

By Ford’s time infectious diseases like smallpox and typhoid fever were no longer major killers. The age of vaccines had dawned and Ford met with Maurice Hilleman and other scientists on March 3,, 1976 to discuss a vaccine response to swine influenza. Ford helped get Congress to commit funds to a nationwide vaccination program that had an ignominious end

Jimmy Carter (1977-81)

Under Carter’s presidency the first comprehensive childhood vaccination program was launched in 1977. Betty Bumpers, wife of Arkansas then-Governor Dale Bumpers, contacted the administration advocating for improved immunization efforts. Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn Carter, became involved and helped Mrs. Bumpers to advocate for state laws requiring vaccination for school entry.

In 1991, Mrs. Bumpers and Mrs. Carter started an immunization campaign called “Every Child by Two,” which works to ensure that all American children immunized against common diseases by the age of 2.

As you can see infectious disease and vaccines have shaped the lives of many American leaders and their families. If you’ve heard of other presidents or world leaders who have been victims of infectious disease, post your comment below: we’d love to hear from you and add to our ongoing research.



Saunders, Paul. Edward Jenner: The Cheltenham Years 1795-1823. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1982, 110.