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Secretly sick: US presidents who battled illness

July 10, 2024

It's not just Joe Biden and Donald Trump: Many US presidents and their challengers have been sick — secretly or publicly. Find out who and what they had.

US President Franklin Roosevelt with dog and daughter
Franklin D. Roosevelt fashioned a 'bespoke' wheelchair from a kitchen chair, making it smaller than standard onesImage: picture alliance / Everett Collection

As speculation about US President Joe Biden's health swirl, many "experts" have delivered their verdicts on Biden's fitness for a second term in office. Is Biden hiding dementia? There's no way of telling by remote diagnosis.

But presidents and their challengers are loath to be explicit about their health. They assume, rightly or wrongly, that the electorate wants strong, healthy leaders. So, they keep quiet. And that can create more speculation.   

In a historical review, researchers concluded that (several) presidents hid their "infirmity outright or otherwise minimize[d] its severity."

Before we take a look, let's first clear up that speculation about Biden.

Joe Biden (In office 2021-): His official 'health summary'

In February 2024, The White House published Biden's latest (at time of writing in July 2024) official health summary. It stated Biden had or was being treated for the following:

  • A basal cell carcinoma (removed)
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Stiffened ambulatory gait

Kevin C. O'Connor, official physician to the president, wrote that Biden was a "healthy, active, robust 81-year-old male, who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency." And there were "no findings consistent with cerebella or central neurological disorder."

Donald Trump (In office 2017-2021): 'COVID? What COVID?'

In the fall of 2020, it is alleged that while running for reelection, Donald Trump waited several days before disclosing publicly he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Trump's infection with the respiratory illness was later confirmed by his then-chief of staff, Mark Meadows. The COVID infection combined with hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the blood.

John F. Kennedy (In office 1962-1963): His secret chronic illnesses

John F. Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's disease in the 1940s and suffered from chronic back pain — the result of a war injury — but we usually only hear about his assassination in Dallas in 1963. The thing is, the Addison's could have killed him, too.

US President John F. Kennedy in his car in Dallas, the day he was shot
If not for the bullet, Addison's disease could have killed JFK Image: Cinema Publishers Collection/imago images

Kennedy actively denied rumors he had Addison's disease during his election campaign in 1960 — despite visible symptoms, including discolored skin.

Addison's disease can be a severe form of hormone deficiency, when the adrenal glands fail to produce enough of certain hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is essential for life. If untreated, Addison's disease is fatal.

Dwight Eisenhower (In office 1953-1961): A fickle heart

Eisenhower's first term in office was tough on him: He had a heart attack in 1955 and an operation for bowel obstruction less than a year later.

Eisenhower's White House press secretary disclosed that the president had suffered a cardiac event but reduced its severity by describing it as a "mild" coronary thrombosis. He then developed a ventricular aneurysm, a weakness of the heart, which can happen after a cardiac attack. It was kept secret from the public.

Later, having left office, Eisenhower had multiple heart attacks, a stroke, and died of hypertension and heart disease.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (In office 1933-1945): How to hide polio

Struck by polio a decade before his presential career, Franklin Roosevelt couldn't keep that secret — not fully, anyway. Using braces and crutches allowed him to stand at a podium during speeches but the image of "FDR" in his home-made wheelchair and a dog in his lap is legendary.

FDR did, however, conceal hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure, and acute bronchitis.

Woodrow Wilson (In office 1913-1921): One stroke after another

A stroke in 1919 is said to have left Woodrow Wilson not only physically impaired — he was partially paralyzed — but also emotionally impaired for the rest of his life. In fact, Wilson suffered multiple strokes, which he denied publicly — the first, in 1896, left a weakness in his right hand. Another affected his eyesight.

He may have also lived with dyslexia, which back in Wilson's day was considered a disability, as well as psychosomatic disorders that lacked medical explanation.

Black and white headshot of US President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson suffered one of his worst strokes in 1919, the same year he recieved the Nobel Peace Prize as a founder of the League of Nations Image: AP

Theodore Roosevelt (In office 1901-1909): The bullet can wait

Theodore Roosevelt was shot at a rally — but went onto speak publicly for 84 minutes before realizing he should get medical help. He either underestimated the severity of the shot or decided to keep it secret.

It's thought that the bullet was deflected by "Teddy" Roosevelt's 50-page speech and metal glasses case before puncturing the right side of his chest. The bullet was lodged between his 4th and 5th rib.

Grover Cleveland (In office 1885-1889, 1893-1897): Dental surgery for cancer

When Grover Cleveland developed a cancerous lesion in his mouth, he decided to secretly have surgery aboard a yacht. The anesthetist was a dentist who also removed two teeth during the operation. That allowed The White House to later claim Cleveland had had an emergency dental procedure, nothing more.

But the operation impaired Cleveland's speech and resulted in some loss of hearing. He was later said to have experienced depression and died of gastrointestinal disease complicated by heart disease, which was a secret to the very end.

Abraham Lincoln (In office: 1861-1865): A gun got him

It was speculated that Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the heart, eyes, blood, and skeleton. Marfan can be fatal if it affects the heart.

The speculations were never confirmed, however. Closer to the truth was that Lincoln experienced depression. But in the end, he was assassinated by gunshot.

Edited by: Fred Schwaller


Presidents of the United States; The White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/

Secret illnesses of the Presidents; University of Arizona Health Sciences Library https://lib.arizona.edu/hsl/materials/collections/secret-illness

The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/presidents

Stricken Before Election: Presidential Health Crises From 1880 to 2020, published by Justin Barr and Theodore N. Pappas in the journal Annals of Surgery (January 2022) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10431273/

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people