A Medical Look at What Killed Every President

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In this video, Mikhail Varshavski, DO — who goes by “Dr. Mike” on social media — takes a trip through history to look at what caused each U.S. president’s death.

Following is a partial transcript of the video (note that errors are possible):

Varshavski: There have been 45 presidents in the history of the United States, and as of uploading this video, 39 of them have died. Today I’m talking about what killed every president and the bizarre circumstances that surrounded many of their deaths, including four assassinations and a top-secret surgery aboard a fishing boat. God bless America and peewoop!

George Washington was killed by his doctors. That’s what I think anyway. In 1799, then-retired President Washington developed a sore throat. His condition worsened over the next few days, despite the efforts of several physicians. Of course in 1799, medical treatment was very poor as doctors often believed the best way to treat ailments was by balancing the humors, meaning they would balance the amount of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile within the body.

“SpongeBob SquarePants” character: That makes no sense.

Varshavski: Over the course of several days, doctors drained Washington of 32 ounces of his blood, gave him blisters in his throat, forced him to vomit, and filled him with enemas. No surprise: Washington passed after several days of this medieval torture. I do wonder if Washington would have lived longer had he just hydrated well and maybe got a Z-Pak [azithromycin].

John Adams lived until 90 years old, the longest living president until Ronald Reagan, when he died of heart failure likely related to arteriosclerosis, a blockage of your arteries due to plaque buildup usually occurring with old age or poor lifestyle habits. Strangely enough, Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day he signed the Declaration of Independence, and just 5 hours after Thomas Jefferson, who died the same exact day.

“South Park” character: Boo, spooky.

Varshavski: The cause of his death is not conclusive, but it was likely due to a variety of elements, such as diarrhea, kidney damage, and an enlarged, possibly cancerous, prostate.

America’s shortest president at just 5 foot 4, James Madison, lived until the age of 85 when he died of congestive heart failure, where the heart’s ability to pump blood deteriorates, causing fluid build up throughout the body.

While specific details are not well recorded, James Monroe died in 1831 after a battle with tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs. While he may have been only America’s fifth president, at the time of his death he joined Adams and Jefferson to become the third president to die on July Fourth. The fact of former presidents dying on July Fourth was not lost on the American people, with the trend becoming a bit of a mid-1800s meme.

John Quincy Adams served one term as president and then became the first to die in office, though not in office as president. You see, after losing the election of 1829, John Quincy Adams continued his public service by holding Congress for nine terms. At the age of 78, during a contentious debate over the Mexican–American War on the floor of the House of Representatives, Adams collapsed, suffering a significant stroke, where there is decreased circulation to the brain leading to neurological damage. He died at his home 2 days later, but not before what must have been a spectacular emergency on Capitol Hill.

Andrew Jackson suffered a long and slow decline in health before dying at the age of 78. The cause of his death, though, has been widely disputed, some attributing it to the use of the medication calomel [mercurous chloride], leading to heavy metal poisoning, but JAMA states he probably died of kidney failure with full-body swelling, known at the time as dropsy.

While it’s not entirely certain what killed Martin Van Buren, many sources, including his obituary in the New York Times, cite issues originating within his chest. It’s likely his decline began with a long infection leading to cardiopulmonary failure.

Now things get interesting. William Henry Harrison delivered a 2-hour inaugural address in freezing drizzle without a coat or gloves, which many people believed to be the cause of pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, which killed him only 1 month into serving office. In 1841, germs had not been discovered.

“Bob’s Burgers” character: Germs, germs everywhere.

Varshavski: Rather, doctors believed the most effective medical treatments were to, just like with Washington, balance the humors. Doctors blistered the president and made him drink substances that forced him to vomit and have diarrhea. Of course, none of those methods actually worked. And so William Henry Harrison remains our president with the shortest stint in office.

John Tyler took over for William Henry Harrison and served the remainder of that term as president. Historians claim he was never very healthy to begin with and died in 1862 of a stroke. He remains the only president in U.S. history not to be buried with the stars and stripes, as he was a darling of the Confederacy and was buried with their flag instead.

James K. Polk had grand visions of his life after the presidency, leaving Washington on the Southern tour of the U.S., eventually hoping to end in Nashville where he had purchased a large home. Unfortunately, Polk died 3 months after leaving office — the shortest post-presidency stint in American history — from cholera, a diarrheal disease caused by drinking contaminated water.

Kids: Ew. Ugh.

Varshavski: Zachary Taylor served a year in office before dying under what many would say are suspicious circumstances. To this day, many claim he was poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners. The cause of his death was so controversial that in 1991 his descendants actually agreed to have his remains exhumed for testing, which did not find a high enough volume of arsenic inside his remains to suggest a definitive poisoning. A more common theory is he contracted cholera or dysentery after celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., which at the time had primitive sewers, often resulting in food and water contamination.

Millard Fillmore is rumored to have been the White House’s first health-conscious president, avoiding alcohol and tobacco. He did die from a stroke at the age of 74.

Franklin Pierce died at the age of 69 from cirrhosis of the liver, likely due to a lifetime of heavy drinking. Alcohol abuse damages the liver directly as ethanol is a toxin, which leads to inflammation and massive swelling within the gut.

James Buchanan is considered by many to be the worst president in the history of the United States, as he did nothing to preserve the Union before handing a country divided by slavery to Abraham Lincoln.

“Friends” character: You are useless.

Varshavski: Information on his death is far and few between, with most reports claiming he died at the age of 77 from pneumonia.

Abraham Lincoln, gun. Next. Just kidding. Though the death of Abraham Lincoln is probably the most well-known on this list, it’s not without its intrigue. Just 5 days after the Union victory of the Civil War, famous actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth snuck into Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and fired a 44-caliber, single-shot derringer pistol directly into the back of Lincoln’s head from just inches away. Lincoln immediately fell into a coma and died across the street 7 hours later.

This we know, but here are the juicy details that are often looked over. Heavily detailed notes on Lincoln’s final hours and his following autopsy were taken by the President’s personal physician, Dr. Robert Stone, which is how we know that Dr. Stone did nothing to help the situation by using his finger to probe the wound and search for the bullet, putting unnecessary pressure inside the President’s brain at his most vulnerable time. Look, he was going to die no matter what they did, but a dirty, gloveless finger inside the brain probably didn’t help.

Mike Varshavski, DO, is a board-certified family physician and social media influencer with more than 10 million subscribers.

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