The biggest secret of John F. Kennedy’s presidency wasn’t his sex life. It was his crippling chronic pain and his covert ways of treating it.
In 1947, an American congressman suddenly collapsed while traveling in Europe. He was taken to a doctor, who concluded that the 30-year-old man was in such terrible shape that he’d be dead within a year. After returning to the U.S., the congressman publicly explained away his health scare as nothing more than a transitory flare-up of malaria that he’d first contracted in the south Pacific while serving in the Navy during World War II.
“At least one half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain.”
—Robert F. Kennedy
That congressman was John F. Kennedy, and he managed not only to outlive that doctor’s dire assessment but also to cover it up. What’s more, the cover-up was so successful that the only thing that the American public knew about Kennedy’s extensive health problems during his ascent to the presidency was that he had occasional backaches. But even that bit of knowledge only hinted at the truth.
In fact, JFK was severely crippled by excruciating back pain, abdominal pain, a life-threatening autoimmune disease, hypothyroidism, and other significant ailments throughout his life. In the mid-1950s while serving in the U.S. Senate, for example, he was hospitalized nine times for back pain, abdominal distress, prostatitis, and other problems. In that same period, he was even given last rites when a high-risk surgical procedure on his back nearly killed him.
After becoming president, he continued to be wracked by pain. During his first year in office, he had to rely on a cherry picker to hoist him into Air Force One because he was too hobbled by back pain to climb the stairs. As his brother Robert Kennedy once said about him, posthumously, “At least one half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain.”
Today, on this 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth, Painopolis delves into his battle with chronic pain. Joining us is Rose McDermott, a professor of international relations at Brown University, whose fascinating book, Presidential Leadership, Illness and Decision Making, explores the impact that pain and illness have had on leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Nixon, and of course, Kennedy. As part of her exhaustive research into JFK’s health history, she—together with a physician—painstakingly studied JFK’s medical records stored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Item by item, McDermott analyzed and deciphered those records to reveal the hidden story of a man struggling with debilitating pain while simultaneously shouldering the world’s most powerful job.
It’s a story that includes an alarming assortment of medications that JFK took to control his pain and also to boost his mood; the role played by a shady character dubbed “Dr. Feelgood,” who routinely injected JFK with a controversial concoction laced with amphetamines; how JFK kept both the cause and severity of his pain secret from the American public; and lastly, how his chronic pain may have shaped the style and substance of his leadership in ways that the American people were never aware of.
Rose McDermott, Ph.D., is the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She’s also a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Her research encompasses a wide range of topics across many disciplines, including the effects of illness on political leaders. Her books include Presidential Leadership, Illness, and Decision Making and Risk-Taking in International Politics.
Inquisitive scholars and physicians alike have poured over JFK’s medical records to gain a better understanding of his health problems before and during his presidency. Inevitably, opinions differ regarding both the cause of his chronic pain and the medical treatments best able to relieve it. If you love delving into historical puzzles, you should definitely explore this sampling of their research to date:
• In this 2014 paper published in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, scholar Rose McDermott investigates the clashes that took place among some of JFK’s physicians over disagreements about his treatment. She also reveals how JFK added to the friction among his medical team of rivals by seeking clandestine treatments that offered short-term pain relief but jeopardized his long-term health.
• In this 2013 paper published in the medical journal Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, two medical researchers review the medical history of JFK and contend that Kennedy’s back pain (along with several other ailments, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic prostatitis, sleep disturbances, fatigue and myofascial pain) persisted because of permanent physiological alterations in his central nervous system.
• In this 2012 article published in the journal Practical Pain Management, pain specialist Forest Tennant, M.D., discusses the causes of JFK’s chronic pain and evaluates the many methods JFK used to rein it in.
• In this videotaped lecture presented to an audience of physicians, Tennant describes JFK’s medical history and the pain-management tactics that allowed Kennedy to remain well enough to carry out the demanding duties of his presidency. Cost: $10 to see the lecture in its entirety.
• In this 2009 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, U.S. Navy physician Lee R. Mandel identifies the type of autoimmune disease that may have plagued JFK—namely, Schmidt syndrome, a.k.a., autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type II.
• In this 2002 The Atlantic magazine article, historian Robert Dallek reveals the severity of JFK’s chronic pain after Dallek and physician Jeffrey Kelman conducted the first-ever scholarly examination of JFK’s medical records.
• Though JFK divulged little to the public about his health problems, one of his back surgeons described JFK’s chronic pain and other ailments in great detail in this 1955 medical-journal article published in the A.M.A. Archives of Surgery. The public and press never caught on, only because the surgeon omitted Kennedy’s identity, referring to him instead as “Case 3.”
• JFK isn’t the only person who’s experienced pain relief from sitting in a rocking chair. This 2010 French study (written in French) found that sitting in a rocking chair significantly eased women’s labor pains.
• Despite JFK’s chronic pain, he wasn’t the unhealthiest person ever to serve as U.S. president. To find out how his ailments compare in severity with those of other American presidents, check out this comprehensive report, Ranking the Health of U.S. Presidents, by MedicareSupplement.com. According to this report, four other presidents were worse off than Kennedy: Reagan, Eisenhower, Taft and Cleveland.
Our theme music is “Gentle Storm,” composed and performed by Betsy Tinney (betsytinney.com).
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