The Sexual Health of the American Presidents

Dec 12, 2013 • Health, History

the sexual health of the U.S. presidents

We’ve heard stories about our country’s leaders, both real and false. In our times, it’s hard to consume news without running into some scandal or another. Like them or hate them, information about political leaders is always useful in getting a picture of that person in that place and time. With this in mind, the Medical History of American Presidents is being compiled. I took a brief tour of it this morning and bring to you some snippets.

John F. Kennnedy, who was president between 1961 and 1963, had “occasional burning when urinating, which was the result of a nonspecific urethritis dating from 1940 and a possible sexual encounter in college.” Few people familiar with Kennedy are unaware of his sexual appetites, but not many of us consider the possible consequences of his dalliances. According to his file, this condition was left untreated and had become a chronic issue by 1946, described as “a mild, chronic, non-specific prostatitis.” No notes appear regarding inflammation in the prostate, however, an antibacterial sulfonamides were administered, suggesting this probably was a sexually transmitted infection. Kennedy, nevertheless, was still experiencing pain when urinating and ejaculating as late as mid-1955.

During his presidency, Kennedy was taking a great number of medications to treat an even greater number of ailments. There were so many drugs that his doctor maintained a “Medicine Administration Record,” where all these were logged. I found testosterone among them — talk about throwing gasoline into a fire. No reason for its administration is given, though it might have been prescribed to counteract the cortico-steroids he was taking. The site notes that it might also have been prescribed to help him maintain his weight.

Apparently, he had a urinary tract infection just in time for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

But let’s go back. Back to the 18th century, to George Washington, who served between 1789 and 1797. Washington never fathered any children, and it is concluded — based on the fact his wife had four children from a previous marriage — that he might have been sterile. Nevertheless, the athletic, manly Washington was known as the Potomac Stallion.

Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and president from 1801 until 1809, had a nasty case of boils on his backside after a visit to a spa where he retired to “take the waters.” The cause is noted as probably being a combination of the 50 mile journey there and general unsanitary conditions. His journey back was miserable, and he spent the next several weeks conducting business lying down. He was unable to horseback ride for months, as a result. Fortunately for the presidency, this happened after he’d left office. He founded the University of Virginia a year later, in 1819. There’s a suggestion that he may have suffered from enlargement of the prostate in the final years of his life.

Nine years before William Howard Taft became president, he lived in the Philippines serving as governor from Manila for three years starting in 1900. A year into this role, he developed a fever and was diagnosed as having dengue. It was probably a misdiagnosis — just a few weeks later, a pus-filled inflammation located between his scrotum and anus burst. Taft had to undergo emergency surgery and came close to death over several days. He would have two more surgeries over the next two years relating to this. He developed amoebic dysentery in 1903, leading some to speculate that the original inflammation (called an abscess) might also have been caused by an amoeba.

During his presidency, Taft began experiencing trouble with his prostate gland. This would continue into the 1920s, during his time as Chief Justice, the head of the Supreme Court of the United States. He also suffered from chronic urinary tract infections.

Warren Harding, who served 1921-1923, had a severe case of mumps as a boy, which included a case of “swelling of the testicles.” There is some debate about whether this left him sterile. However, in 1928 — five years after Harding’s death — Nan Britton published what would become the first American best-selling mistress tell-all, The President’s Daughter, which revealed that she and Harding had had a six-year relationship and she had borne him a child. Britton stood by her statements until her death in 1991. Her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, who died 14 years later, never saw reason to prove her paternity.

Ronald Reagan, president from 1981 until 1989, had prostate stones removed in 1966 after a series of urinary tract infections. According to his records, he underwent a surgery to remove part of his prostate gland in 1967 to treat recurring postatitis. He had another surgery to treat his prostate in 1987. It’s never so clear how central health is to history than when you encounter snippets like the following:

“The Cold War began to end when two elderly gentlemen discovered that they shared a common difficulty with their bladders.” Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko was at the White House. Reagan was supposed to raise one crucial, secret issue when the two were alone. Security people watched Reagan and Gromyko alone in the Oval Office, nodding in conversation. Afterwards, US State Department people asked the Soviets for their reaction to the secret issue. The Soviets looked blank. What secret issue? “Reagan, 73, had asked Gromyko, 75, only if he would like to use the private Presidential lavatory. Indeed Gromyko would. Very much. He went first. Reagan went second. They washed their hands and, much relieved, the two old fellows strolled in to lunch. Arms control was forgotten, but a certain rapport had been forged among the faucets.”

This and more at The Medical History of the American Presidents.