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Top 10 Fascinating Facts About White House Physicians

by Adam R. Ramos
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It probably comes as no surprise that working in the White House can be stressful. The tight security, endless media scrutiny, and, in some cases, internal strife can drain even the most hardened professionals.

One of the more strenuous positions in the White House is being the personal physician to the president. While living in the shadows, these doctors’ priority is the health and well-being of the commander in chief. The following ten stories delve into fascinating little-known facts, horrendous mishaps, and scandalous particulars pertaining to the prestigious yet arduous responsibility that, more often than not, goes unrecognized.

10 The Kill Zone

The challenges that face the physician to the president of the United States range widely and sometimes cause conflict. Due to the fact that military doctors are outranked by their commander in chief, patient-doctor relationship is often strained, with physicians conflicted about breaking their Hippocratic Oath while simultaneously appeasing their boss’s demands. Despite the honor and prestige, serving as a member of the White House medical staff is often thought of as a thankless job with rigorous hours.

It can also be dangerous at times. Staff members are instructed to work as invisibly as possible yet remain beside the president at all times in case of an unforeseen medical emergency. This has sometimes instilled fear among physicians, who worry about attempts made on the president’s life and the possibility of catching a stray bullet. Nonetheless, medical staff members are taught to stay out of the “kill zone” and often wear civilian clothes as opposed to military uniforms in order to reduce the chance of becoming targets themselves. According to Dr. Eleanor Mariano, who served as White House physician under Bill Clinton, “You can’t treat the president if you are dead.”[1]

9 An Unrewarding Position

According to Dr. Daniel Ruge, Ronald Reagan’s personal physician during his first term in office, the position he held was anything but glamorous. Being a member of the White House medical staff may seem like a dream job for most doctors, but Dr. Ruge described his role as “vastly overrated, boring and not medically challenging.”[2] This was only one of the factors that led to Dr. Ruge’s resignation in 1985. That year, a Congressional Directory staff ranking for the White House office put Dr. Ruge’s name at 80th of the 82 positions, just ahead of the curator and chief usher.

Such an apparent lack of appreciation, although perhaps unintentional, occurred on more than one occasion. Case in point, Dr. Ruge was rarely invited to state dinners but was required to be dressed in a tuxedo in case of a medical emergency. More often than not, the doctor spent his nights alone in his office reading journals, solving crossword puzzles, and contemplating his future private medical practice.

8 Exoneration

For nearly a century, historians believed that the physicians treating Andrew Jackson were responsible for his ailments and eventual death. For a man who survived the War of 1812 as well as the Native American campaigns, Jackson was plagued with decades of poor health, including excruciating abdominal cramps, constipation, mood swings, paranoia, and kidney failure. Without fail, scholars have adamantly argued that Jackson’s personal physicians were unknowingly overdosing him with the mercury-containing medication calomel.

In 1999, those who tended to him were finally vindicated of any wrongdoing, or at the very least exonerated for causing his actual death. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, analysis of two samples of Jackson’s hair, clipped in 1815 and 1839, rule out mercury as the cause of his chronic health problems.[3] Instead, scientists concluded that his ailments were brought on by lead poisoning. In 1813, Jackson was shot in the left shoulder, where the bullet remained lodged for nearly 20 years. According to Dr. Deppisch, who has extensively researched Jackson’s medical history, “We can explain many of Jackson’s intestinal problems on the basis of lead colic.”

7 Disclosure And Cover-Ups

In recent years, it has become standard for presidential candidates to disclose their health records. However, such was not the case prior to the 1980s, when the majority of the public deemed such acts as an invasion of privacy, unconscionably intrusive for the highest office. Over the years, White House physicians kept many serious illnesses that plagued presidents hidden from public knowledge.

Case in point, when Grover Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his jaw in 1893, his physicians operated on him aboard a ship off New York City in order to keep the diagnosis as secretive as possible.[4] The public was also kept in the dark when Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke, causing his wife to unofficially run the country. In 1944, US citizens were told that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in excellent condition when, in reality, he was on death’s doorstep, suffering from severe high blood pressure and a weakened heart muscle. Even Lyndon B. Johnson went to great lengths to hide the fact that he had a secret operation to remove skin cancer, specifically basal cell carcinoma.


Photo credit: Maureen Keating

Dr. Burton J. Lee, who served as President George H.W. Bush’s personal physician, was fired days after Bill Clinton was sworn into office. On the day of his firing, Dr. Lee—who was overseeing the transition of the White House medical unit—was given an order by a staff member with no medical qualifications to administer an “allergy” shot to President Clinton.

Dr. Lee was reluctant to comply, given that the mystery serum wasn’t marked. Within an hour of his request to see President Clinton’s medical records prior to treating him, he was informed that he needed to clear out of the White House within two hours. Speaking to the New York Post in September 1996, Dr. Lee made it clear that his request for Clinton’s medical history was referred to the first lady, Hillary, which led to his abrupt and unwarranted dismissal. According to Dr. Lee, “There isn’t any question in my mind that the person who fired me was Hillary.”[5] Perhaps the real question we should be asking is, “Why?”

5 First Female Physician To Serve

In 1961, Dr. Janet Travell became one of the few civilians and first woman to be personal physician to a president.[6] Despite the praise from President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Travell’s position caused a stir among the military, which had been providing medical care to presidents since the 1920s. This culminated in political infighting, causing Dr. Travell to approach Kennedy about whether or not she should resign, to which he adamantly replied; “I don’t want you to leave. If I do, I will let you know.”

In her short years with President Kennedy, Dr. Travell alleviated his chronic back pain by injecting Novocain in his spinal muscles as well as suggesting that he wear custom-made shoes after she discovered that his left leg was shorter than his right. Her lasting contribution, however, was that she helped revive the old-fashioned rocking chair, which had fallen out of popularity. Kennedy’s oak rocker alleviated the tension in his lower back and became a familiar sight to White House photographers and the public. Dr. Travell remained at the White House following Kennedy’s assassination and went on to treat President Lyndon B. Johnson. She died in 1997 at the age of 95.

4 Chainsaw Accident

During Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, Dr. John E. Hutton Jr. oversaw several medical procedures, including minor prostate surgery, excision of skin cancer, and the removal of cancerous tissue in Reagan’s intestines. In October 1987, Dr. Hutton personally delivered the news to the president that Nancy had breast cancer. He, along with a team of 12 physicians, went on to perform a mastectomy on the first lady’s left breast.

Of all the White House maladies Dr. Hutton cared for, one in particular escaped public notice: a chainsaw accident on Reagan’s California ranch. While tending to his landscape, Reagan accidentally sliced open his thigh, missing a major artery by only 2.5 centimeters (1 in). Dr. Hutton would recall, “I noticed he had a big hole in his dungarees and there was blood all around it.” The doctor compressed the gaping wound and immediately sutured it, saving the president’s life. Dr. Hutton retired from the military in 1992 and went on to teach surgery at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. In 2004, he served as a pallbearer at Reagan’s funeral. Dr. Hutton died at the age of 83 in December 2014.[7]

3 Ignorance Is Bliss

One of the greatest tragedies in US history is the fact that the death of President James A. Garfield was undoubtedly avoidable, even after being shot. President for less than four months, Garfield was shot in the arm and back by Charles Guiteau at a DC train station on July 2, 1881. The bullets didn’t hit any vital organs, and if only physicians hadn’t subscribed to the miasma theory (“bad air causes disease and illness, not germs”), Garfield would have lived. Instead, 12 physicians inserted their unsterilized fingers in Garfield’s back, probing for the bullet on the dirty train station floor.

Matters only got worse when Dr. D. Willard Bliss, an arrogant and ambitious man who accepted no second opinions, took charge of Garfield’s care at the White House. For an excruciating 80 days, Garfield’s condition worsened. His body became riddled with abscesses due to infection. Unable to eat, Garfield was starving to death, with his weight plunging from 95 kilograms (210 lb) to 59 kilograms (130 lb). It is without question that Dr. Bliss’s refusal of other physicians’ input sealed the fate of Garfield, who finally died on September 19, 1881. Prior to his hanging, Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau made an ironically sane remark for an insane man: “Yes, I shot him, but his doctors killed him.” In the end, ignorance is bliss.[8]

2 Top Secret Mission

An unlikely and unusual request to the State Department by the king of Saudi Arabia set off a series of events that undoubtedly drew the two nations closer together. In April 1950, a top secret trip by President Harry Truman’s personal physician was organized following an urgent plea for assistance from King Ibn Saud, who was suffering a great deal of pain due to chronic osteoarthritis, confining the ruler to a wheelchair. The request came at a complicated time for the two nations due to an uneasy relationship based on regional security, oil drilling, and America’s recognition of Israel. Nonetheless, President Truman sent his personal physician, Brigadier General Wallace H. Graham, “as a gift to the King.”

Prior to Dr. Graham’s arrival, the Saudi government sent an emergency telegram asking Truman “not to permit any news either press or radio concerning medical team coming here” given their fear that a medical emergency would fuel rumors of the king’s abdication. In the end, Saud’s pain was exceptionally relieved, allowing the king to take back responsibilities previously assigned to his son. The secretive trip by Dr. Graham was not only “deeply appreciated” by Ibn Saud but allowed for future US-Saudi Arabia agreements and unity.[9]

1 Torture

Although the White House was completed after George Washington’s passing, the details of the dreadful hours leading to his death at the hands of his trusted physicians would be a sin to neglect. On December 12, 1799, America’s first president rode on horseback in snow, hail, and rain. The harsh weather caused Washington to develop a sore throat that increasingly worsened. As difficulty breathing and fever began to set in, Dr. James Craik (Washington’s physician of 40 years), Dr. Gustavus Brown, and Dr. Elisha Dick provided medical care that in today’s society would be deemed synonymous with torture.

Over a 12-hour period, Washington was bled four times; given a mixture of molasses, butter, and vinegar that induced convulsions, nearly suffocating him; had blisters administered to his throat, feet, and legs; was subjected to an emetic to induce vomiting; and, last but not least, given an enema. To the bewilderment of the three physicians, their medical knowledge led to no beneficial results. Between 10:00 PM and 11:00 PM on December 14, George Washington passed away. His last request was to be “decently buried” and to “not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” All his wishes were respectfully honored.[10]

Adam is just a hubcap trying to hold on in the fast lane.

fact checked by Jamie Frater