One of the reasons that I do not watch medical shows on television is that they are just too “inexact” for me. I admit that I have a surgeon’s personality in the sense that I want to know every single last detail – the specifics of when, what, how, and for how long. When I can’t get that information I go into “tilt” mode slightly and it ruins my enjoyment of the show.
I ran into the same type of problem with the last book I read. It was called Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton and is
the first and only volume in the planned but unfinished three volume biography on JFK. I thought it was an engaging read and it had lots of details and trivia about Kennedy’s life, including more details about his medical condition than I have ever read – but it still was not enough for me. This was a man who was really, really sick for most of his life.
There are so many unanswered questions about JFK’s medical history. Please note that I do not think there is any big, hidden conspiracy here. But, there are things that intrigue me – how could the diagnosis of Addison’s disease be missed by so many doctors for so long? And, what were the mysterious operations “near the kidney” whose details were never reported?
I acknowledge there are others who have written books and built websites to chronicle and categorize his health woes and who have gotten lost in the shadows and obfuscations of history. Lest readers think I am tilting at windmills, I take heart in the success of Dr. Harry Goldsmith, a surgeon and amateur historian who 35 years after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, compiled medical data and published new theories about FDR’s health that received broad acclaim and now wide acceptance.
I have only met two people who claimed to have known Kennedy. One was a prominent churchman who knew him only as an adult – and who did not care for him at all. And, one was a navy veteran who served with him in the Solomon Islands and who said he “was a skinny little kid” who was very popular with his men. I am going to see what else I can find out about him that I don’t know.
Please see below for a recreation of JFK’s medical history from secondary sources and also comments from the editor. As time permits, primary sources will be researched in an attempt to figure out exactly what was wrong.
May 29, 1917 – birth (1)
childhood – scarlet fever (2)p.70
childhood – JFK reminiscence of illness that caused him to be bedridden due to “some blood infection that left me lacking in white corpuscles” (2)p.70
April, 1930 – appendicitis while attending Canterbury School (unable to finish semester) (2)p.70
Christmas, 1933 – JFK falls and “skins a knee” while playing tennis in Palm Beach, Florida (5)p.37
early January, 1934 – develops “blood poisoning” after returning to Choate; transferred to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston (5)p.37
Spring, 1938 – Persistent weight loss, Spee Club installs ice cream machine so JFK can pursue high fat diet(3)p.227
May 29, 1938 – JFK postpones his planned 21st birthday party at urging of his physicians due to unspecified health reasons (3)p.227
June 13, 1938 – Completes sophomore year at Harvard (3)p.227
June 15, 1938 – Admitted to New England Baptist Hospital for “intestinal flu” (3)p.227
Summer, 1938 – William Douglas Home reminiscence on JFK’s summer vacation in London “He was age 21, very young, and very interested in everything. I mean, not only politics, but the thing that struck you about him was that he was so very vital about everything (3)p.239
Spring, 1940 – treated for “mild, nonspecific urethritis” (5)p.80
June, 1940 – distended abdomen of unknown origin with abdominal pain. Seeks treatment at Mayo Clinic where physicians prescribe enemas and change his diet from ice cream and milk shake heavy (per Dr. Sara Jordan) to potatoes and rice (5)p.83
Fall/Winter, 1943 – weight dropped to 120 lbs., exacerbation of back pain, reportedly ill with malaria after PT boat rescue (2)p.84
Fall/Winter, 1943 – JFK reminiscence to shipmates after PT boat rescue “I feel like hell” (2)p.85
Spring, 1944 – Fall on board training PT boat in Florida, exacerbation of back pain (2)p.85
Spring, 1944 – Ordered to Chelsea Naval Hospital for treatment for back after fall (2)p.85
May, 1951 – Faints at the altar during the marriage ceremony of RFK, where he was acting as best man. (5)p.166
September 12, 1953 – married Jacqueline Bouvier (1)
1954 â€“ reminiscence of close friend â€œThat metal plate they put into his spine after the war had never healed over. You could look into an open hole in his back and see it.â€ (2) p.161
Autumn, 1954 â€“ JFK uses crutches due to worsening back pain (2) p.161
Autumn, 1954 â€“ Evelyn Lincoln (JFK secretary) reminiscence â€œThe last day of the session he was in tremendous pain. As soon as the the Senate adjourned, he went to the airport, where a private plane was waiting to take him to Hyannis to his familyâ€™s house. He hoped the rest there would cure himâ€ (2)p.161
Autumn, 1954 â€“ Reminiscence of Frank Morrissey on JFKâ€™s worsening back pain and after he agreed to further surgery â€œThat was the only time he ever mentioned pain to me. He told me heâ€™d take the chance of dying â€“ he couldnâ€™t stand any more painâ€ (2)p.161
Spring, 1957 – JFK’s gait evened out after he had a special lift crafted into left shoe by the cobblers at Church’s. His left leg was reportedly one-half inch shorter than his right (5)p.237
1957 – Joseph P. Kennedy to Eleanor Harris “I can tell Jack’s sick by looking at him but not by listening to him” (2)p.70
1960 – JFK begins treatment by Dr. Max Jacobson (aka Dr. Feelgood) a physician from New York who had previous celebrity clients that he treated with amphetamines. (4)p.398.
July 4, 1960 â€“ JFK statement that the Presidency demanded â€œthe strength and health and vigor of young menâ€ in press conference to rebut Trumanâ€™s attempts to derail his nomination for President and possible allusion to LBJâ€™s 1955 heart attack (2)p.375
Several days after July 4, 1960 â€“ John B. Connally tells press that JFK secretly suffered from Addisonâ€™s disease. Connally suggests a competition of sorts in comparing medical records and encourages JFK to submit to a physical by LBJâ€™s physician (2)p.375
Several days after July 4, 1960 â€“ India Edwards (top LBJ operative) tells reporters that she had sources at the Lahey clinic that JFK required large doses of cortisone administration and â€œdoctors have told me that he would not be alive today were it not for cortisone. It is no disgrace to have Addisonâ€™s disease. He has it now.â€ It is not a â€œâ€¦serious defect â€¦ if it can be controlled. But I object to his verbal muscle-flexing with regard to his youth, as if he had better health than anybody elseâ€ (2)p.375
July, 1960 â€“ RFK response to attention given to JFKâ€™s medical problems â€œThese are desperation tactics employed by those who are trying unsuccessfully to stop my brotherâ€™s nomination. These charges show how desperate they really areâ€ (2)p.375
June 16, 1961 – photo of JFK on using crutches to walk (4)p.502
July 16, 1962 – smokes marijuana in the Lincoln bedroom with paramour Mary Meyer. He reportedly tried smoking the joint like a conventional cigarette and did not immediately feel a buzz. His comment “It’s not like cocaine.” Only after being shown how to smoke the joint properly did he get high and start to giggle (5)p355
White House years – suffers from low blood pressure and very high cholesterol (5)p.355
White House years – physical agitation such that he could not sit through a movie or dinner without getting up and walking for several minutes (5)p.355
White House years – sometimes requires injection of procaine (a local anesthetic) into back to reduce pain and stiffness by Dr. Janet Travell before being able to get out of bed (5)p.355
White House years – received injections of amphetamines every two weeks by Dr. Max Jacobson (5)p.355
November 22, 1963 – died at approximately 2PM Eastern at Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas (1)
November 22, 1963 – 8PM (Eastern) – JFK autopsy performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The official report that was produced and provided to the Warren Commission as exhibit 387 is now the source of much controversy and is felt by many to have been poorly done and inaccurate
Some of the medical conclusions drawn by Perret (5) from JFK’s medical history are misleading or wrong and his descriptions are maddeningly vague. For instance, he repeatedly mentions that JFK’s “bowels became blocked.” This is a virtually meaningless statement to a medical professional. In addition on p. 80 he states that most urinary tract infections are transmitted sexually – this is not accurate.
(2) JFK The Man and The Myth Victor Lasky, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1963.
(3) JFK Reckless Youth Nigel Hamilton, Random House, New York, 1992.
(4) An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 Robert Dallek, Little Brown and Company, New York, 2003
(5) Jack A Life Like No Other Geoffrey Perret, Random House, New York, 2002
PLEASE CHECK BACK. MORE SOON.
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