America’s 10 Unhealthiest Presidents

By Jocelyn Voo

President Barack Obama knows a thing or two about fitness. In December, the Washington Post reported that he’d hit the gym for at least 48 days in a row, clocking at least 90 minutes each time. Photographers have snapped him playing golf in Hawaii on Christmas Eve, doing impromptu pull-ups right before giving a speech in Missoula, Montana, on the election trail, and playing a game of pick-up basketball (a sport he’s played since he was a kid) with staff and Secret Service agents on Election Day.

Considering his well-documented gym habits and disciplined diet, the media has heralded Obama as the new face of presidential health. Of course, he isn’t perfect — the guy has been a longtime smoker (although he has resolved to quit, and has often been seen chewing Nicorette), occasionally chows down on cheeseburgers, has admitted to trying marijuana and cocaine as a teenager, and there’s a history of cancer in his family. Still, his longtime physician issued a statement in 2008 that Obama is in "excellent health," citing his lean body mass, and normal cholesterol, blood pressure, and EKG levels.

But not all American presidents have been model specimens of health. Some of them far from it, in fact. Disease, injury, and destructive habits have run rampant in the 43 commanders-in-chief — but while we can’t totally fault George Washington for contracting malaria or smallpox (it was the 1700s, after all), we also can’t really condone John Adams’ habit of having bread and beer for breakfast at age 15.

Here, the 10 least healthy presidents in American history.

10. James Monroe
Fifth President (1817-1825)

Bullet wound: Before becoming elected president, James Monroe dropped out of college and enlisted as a cadet in the Third Virginia Infantry in 1776. During this time, he fought in the Battle of Trenton, during which he was wounded by a bullet hitting his left shoulder’s axillary artery, the major bloodway to his arm. To save his life, a doctor stuck his index finger into the wound to stop Monroe from bleeding out. Surgeons were unable to locate the bullet for removal, so though the president recovered fully, the bullet remained in his shoulder for the rest of his life.

Malaria: In 1785, Monroe contracted malaria while visiting a swampy area of the Mississippi River, and sporadic feverish flare-ups plagued him for years down the line.

Seizure: In August 1825, Monroe suffered a severe seizure that almost killed him. Though the cause was never pinpointed, it’s speculated that it could’ve been triggered by mushroom poisoning, a stroke, or cerebral malaria.

Tuberculosis: In 1830, Monroe developed a chronic lung illness that crippled him for several months, leaving him with labored breathing, fever, night sweats, and a nagging cough that sometimes had him spitting up blood. Though not officially diagnosed as such, his symptoms suggest pulmonary tuberculosis.

9. Theodore Roosevelt
26th President (1901-1909)

Blindness: A frail and sickly child, Roosevelt was encouraged to do lots of physical activity in hopes of alleviating his asthma and other ailments. Boxing became one of Roosevelt’s hobbies, which he continued into adulthood. However, after being elected to the White House, he suffered one major injury when a blow to the left eye detached his retina, leaving him blind in that side.

Deafness: Suffering from a throat infection, Roosevelt developed otitis media, an inflammation of the middle ear. The subsequent operation left him deaf in his left ear.

Bullet wound: On the campaign trail in 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a deranged saloonkeeper. The gun was originally pointed at the president’s head, but a bystander saw the weapon and jolted the gunman’s arm, causing the bullet to hit Roosevelt in the chest. Luckily, both a 50-page speech and a steel glasses case, held in his breast pocket, absorbed some of the impact and deflected the shot, saving Roosevelt’s life. But rather than undergo surgery to remove the bullet, Roosevelt deemed the operation too risky and carried the bullet in his chest for the rest of his life.

Malaria: On an expedition into the Amazon rainforest in 1913, Roosevelt contracted malaria, a condition made worse by an infected leg wound. These injuries resulted in chest pains, a high fever, and delirium. Though Roosevelt didn’t die, he returned to America in a decrepit physical state, and for many years was often unable to leave his bed.

8. Ronald Reagan
40th President (1981-1989)

Nearsighted: Ronald Reagan’s poor eyesight not only disqualified him from serving during World War II, but as a college football player he could only clearly see within a yard’s radius, causing him to sometimes be clocked in the head with the ball. Later, when he got glasses, he remarked in surprise that trees had leaves — something he’d never known had existed before.

Smoker: Reagan was once a smoker, but stopped, reportedly after his brother developed throat cancer.

Prostate stones: In 1966, after experiencing multiple urinary tract infections, Reagan underwent surgery to remove prostate stones.

Bullet wound: In 1981 while riding in his limousine, the president was shot in the chest by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Suffering from blood loss and a collapsed lung, Reagan successfully underwent emergency surgery to remove the bullet, which had missed his heart by an inch. But despite the seriousness of the injury, the president’s spirits were still buoyed: When his wife Nancy arrived at the hospital to see him after surgery, Reagan joked to her, "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Hearing loss: Reagan used a hearing aid in his right ear early in his term, but later also started wearing one in his left ear. It’s been speculated that his hearing was damaged during his early years as a Hollywood actor, when he was exposed to loud gunshot noises during the filming of Western movies.

Colon cancer: After two benign polyps were discovered in his colon, Reagan had a colonoscopy that revealed another tumor that required surgical removal. As a result, about two feet of his colon was removed.

Skin cancers: In the late 1980s, small basal cell carcinoma was discovered on Reagan’s nose, and the cancer was removed. In 1995, another patch of skin cancer was discovered and removed from his neck.

Alzheimer’s disease: Though he was famous for having a near-photographic memory during his prime, Reagan’s memory deteriorated when he hit his 70s, and he would sometimes forget the names of key staffers and visiting dignitaries. A formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s occurred in 1994.

7. Woodrow Wilson
28th President (1913-1921)

Hypertension, headaches, double-vision: Wilson suffered from multiple strokes throughout adulthood. Symptoms foreshadowing these episodes were hypertension, massive headaches, and double-vision.

Multiple strokes: The first of a series of strokes occurred in 1896, which hindered the fingers in his right hand and left him unable to write normally for a year.

Blindness: His third stroke, in 1906, left him blind in his left eye.

Paralysis: Finally, in 1919, the president suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and forced him into a wheelchair. Wilson decided to keep his condition a secret from the public, which essentially meant isolating himself. It’s thought that during his final three years in the White House, his wife Edith made all presidential decisions for him.

Eventually, the truth of Wilson’s illness became public, spurring the ratification of the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president shall become the executive power in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or disability.

6. Andrew Jackson
Seventh President (1829-1837)

Smallpox: During the American Revolution, Andrew Jackson, only 13 years old at the time, became a courier in South Carolina’s mounted militia with his brother. During this period, both boys were imprisoned by the British, and contracted smallpox while in jail. Though Jackson’s mother was able to jockey the boys’ release, she could only take one of them on horseback to their home for treatment. Jackson, delirious with fever, had to walk the 45 miles without shoes or a jacket. Jackson’s brother died two days later; Jackson recovered after several months.

Bullet wounds: Jackson was known for his hot temper, particularly over slanderous comments about his wife. These often landed him in gun feuds with his attackers, despite Jackson’s poor aim. In 1813, Jackson was seriously wounded after being shot twice in the shoulder and once in the arm during an altercation with politician Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse Benton. His left shoulder was shattered, with shrapnel lodged against his left humerus. Since he was losing massive amounts of blood, almost every doctor recommended amputation, which Jackson refused. He was bedridden for three weeks, but ultimately healed.

Jackson was also injured during an 1806 duel with famous marksman Charles Dickinson, during which Dickinson shot the future president in the chest. The bullet missed Jackson’s heart but shattered two of his ribs, which never healed properly, leaving him with pains for the rest of his life. (To his credit, even after taking the bullet, he righted himself and fired a fatal shot at Dickinson.)

Dysentery, malaria: During his military campaigns, Jackson suffered from both dysentery and malaria.

Addiction to coffee, alcohol, and tobacco: Jackson refused to give up these three vices, despite doctor’s orders and the fact that they gave him migraines. He was such a fan of chewing tobacco that brass spittoons were installed in the White House.

Lead and mercury poisoning: Despite enduring intense pain from bone infection, Jackson didn’t have the bullet from the Benton scuffle removed until 1832, 19 years after the fact. The chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine arrived at the White House to perform the operation sans anesthesia. The extraction proved successful, and Jackson’s health improved tremendously immediately afterward, suggesting the bullets may have contributed to slow lead poisoning.

Furthermore, Jackson also had a habit of self-medicating with calomel (mercurous chloride — often used as a diuretic and purgative in the mid 19th century), as well as ingesting sugar of lead (lead acetate — used as a food sweetener). Both these compounds are toxic, leading to mercury and lead poisoning. Indeed, a 1999 evaluation of Jackson’s century-old hair samples revealed significantly elevated levels of both metals, which surely contributed to his severe health decline.

Edema: In 1845, during his last two months of life, Jackson began experiencing edema, an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath his skin and in certain cavities. With his feet, legs, hands, abdomen, and face all swollen, his bloated body was bedridden until he died on June 8.

5. Warren Harding
29th President (1921-1923)

Hypertension, diabetes: Even before he became president, Harding had high blood pressure and signs of diabetes.

Heavy tobacco user: Not only did Harding smoke two cigars a day and chew tobacco, but he also indulged in the occasional pipe and cigarette. He was so fanatical about the condition of his cigars that he brought his cigar humidor with him from his Ohio home to Washington.

Overweight: Harding tipped the scales at over 200 pounds in 1918.

Heart disease: Harding’s physical health was in rapid decline in the late 1910s through the early 1920s. Combined with his weight problem and shortness of breath, Harding also became easily tired and had occasional chest pains. In 1923, he died of a sudden heart attack.

4. Dwight Eisenhower
34th President (1953-1961)

Heavy smoker: As in four-packs-a-day heavy smoker. Eisenhower’s physician recommended that he cut down to one pack a day, but after limiting his intake for a few days, the president decided to quit cold turkey. Asked how he did it, Eisenhower said that he simply didn’t think about it, and that it helped to develop a scornful attitude towards those who couldn’t kick the habit.

Crohn’s disease: In 1956, six months before the election, Eisenhower was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory disease that affects the digestive system, generally causing abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or weight loss). That June, the president successfully underwent emergency surgery to alleviate his inflamed small intestine.

Gallstones: Eisenhower had his gallbladder (containing 16 gallstones) removed in 1966.

Heart attacks: In 1955 Eisenhower suffered a heart attack so severe that his primary cardiologist advised the president not to run for a second term. Eisenhower chose not to take his advice, however, and was reelected. His second term was marred by even more heart trouble: during a five-month span alone in 1968, he suffered four heart attacks and 14 cardiac arrests. These attacks weakened him to the point where he could only be out of bed for 45 minutes a day, and he died soon after the next year.

3. John F. Kennedy
35th President (1961-1963)

Scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough: Kennedy’s childhood was riddled with health issues. At 2 years old, he contracted measles, whooping cough, and chickenpox. He also contracted scarlet fever, which almost killed him. Later in his childhood, he frequently had upper respiratory infections and bronchitis, as well as allergies, frequent colds, asthma, and a weak stomach.

Jaundice, pneumonia, appendicitis: During his teen years, Kennedy had his appendix removed, suffered a severe case of pneumonia, had his tonsils removed, and was hit with jaundice twice, which sent him to the hospital for two months and forced him to withdraw from Princeton University.

Urethritis: Once Kennedy recovered from jaundice, he resumed his college education at Harvard University. During this time, he contracted urethritis, an inflammation of the urethra that results in painful urination. Kennedy didn’t seek immediate treatment, so this became a chronic problem for many years, despite his taking drugs to suppress symptoms. Considering Kennedy’s notorious libido and reputation as a playboy, some have speculated that his urethritis was a sexually transmitted disease.

Addison’s disease: After years of suffering back pains, Kennedy was diagnosed in 1947 with Addison’s disease, a rare endocrine disorder that generally results in fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, and bronzing of the skin. Kennedy was so ill that he was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, with physicians speculating that he would die within the year. However, cortisone therapy and medicinal implants kept Kennedy alive. Still, the president underwent two failed back operations to rid him of his aches, and took chronic pain medication from 1955 until his death.

Cigar smoker: Kennedy loved a fine cigar — so much, in fact, that he once called his press secretary into his office and asked him to buy 1,000 Cuban cigars by the next morning. The press secretary obliged, and presented Kennedy with the requested goods the next morning. Only then did Kennedy pull a document out of his desk and sign it. It was the embargo officially ending trade with Cuba.

Drug cocktail: Kennedy suffered from a host of maladies throughout his lifetime, causing him to take a cocktail of drugs at the beginning of his presidency — many of which can affect one’s thinking processes. Among those taken were injected cortisone, phenobarbital, Tuinal, Lomotil, and amphetamines.

2. William Taft
27th President (1909-1913)

Obesity: Though Taft generally didn’t drink (he became a teetotaler in 1906), he had an extreme appetite. At 5’11", he ballooned to over 300 pounds during his presidency, making him the fattest president in history. However, through aggressive dieting, he lost almost 100 pounds, which he continually gained and lost over his lifetime.

Sleep apnea: Due to his morbid obesity, Taft suffered from severe sleep apnea (a sleep disorder marked by pauses in breathing during sleep) throughout his life. He slept through meetings with the president when he was serving as secretary of war, nodded off during conversations with the speaker of the House and with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, fell asleep in the middle of signing documents and while eating, and also once slept through a typhoon in the Philippines.

Cardiac arrhythmia: Also due to his weight, Taft suffered from an abnormal heartbeat, which he monitored by taking medication. High blood pressure and an irregular heart rate plagued him throughout his life.

Smoker: Taft was a cigar smoker when he started his term, but quit while in office.

Gout: Both of Taft’s feet were attacked by gout (a disease created by a buildup of uric acid, which causes swelling, stiffness, and burning pain in joints).

Gallstones: Because of the gout, Taft had 30 or so stones removed from his gallbladder.

1. Grover Cleveland
22nd President (1885-1889), 24th President (1893-1897)

Obesity: Since childhood, Grover Cleveland was a bit tubbier than average, and his weight problem stuck with him into adult age. At 5’11" and weighing over 250 pounds, Cleveland, the second-heaviest president to date, was nicknamed "Big Steve," and some of his nieces and nephews called him "Uncle Jumbo."

Penchant for food and alcohol: Likely contributing to his obesity was Cleveland’s love for rich food and beer. At one point during his 1870 campaign for district attorney of Erie County, New York, Cleveland and his rival agreed to drink only four glasses of beer per day — only to later decide it was too restrictive an amount.

Cigar smoker: In 1893, Cleveland, a longtime cigar smoker, complained of an ulcer on the roof of his mouth, which later proved to be a carcinoma. Fearing repercussions if word got out, the president arranged for a secret surgery. Doctors removed parts of his upper left jaw and hard palate and considered the operation to be a success, although it left Cleveland’s mouth disfigured.

Gout: Cleveland was hampered by gout on his feet for many years, possibly as early as 1885 when he was seen limping at former President Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral. Cleveland’s condition was likely exacerbated by his heavy drinking, which increases serum uric acid concentrations.

Originally published on, January 2009.

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