Monday, May 21, 2007

Abraham Lincoln's Medical Woes in the News - Part I

I have written about Abraham Lincoln's medical problems before, so I was very interested in two recent stories in the press about President Lincoln (many thanks are due to Kay Jorgensen, editor at Civil War News, for bringing this to my attention).

First - in the Houston Chronicle late last week, two medical researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) announced that Lincoln suffered from a potentially fatal case of smallpox when he delivered his famed Gettysburg Address:

May 17, 2007, 2:36PM
UTMB researchers say Lincoln suffered from smallpox
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

GALVESTON — GALVESTON President Abraham Lincoln suffered from a potentially fatal case of smallpox when he delivered his famed Gettysburg Address, according to two medical researchers at Galveston's University of Texas Medical Branch.

The pair's findings, based on numerous descriptions of Lincoln's illness in November and December of 1863, appear in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Biography, published today.

"Smallpox was rampant in the United States at that time," said Dr. Armond S. Goldman, an emeritus professor in UTMB's pediatrics department and lead author of the study.

In the 1860s, about a third of those infected by smallpox died, Goldman said today.

Symptoms recorded after Lincoln first complained of illness on his way to Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, and that saw him carried on a stretcher to the White House from the capital's train station late that night match only those of virulent smallpox of the day, Goldman said.
Lincoln remained in bed many days after he delivered the famously brief speech at the Pennsylvania battlefield, Goldman said.

"By Dec. 7, he could walk around briefly but he was emaciated and sallow-faced," Goldman said. "It wasn't until Dec. 15 that he felt well enough to conduct official business for several hours a day."

There is a "vast difference" between Lincoln's appearance in a photograph taken in late October or early November and one taken in early 1864, Goldman said.

"There were rumors at the time that the president was gravely ill or perhaps dying," Goldman said.

But few historians have noted the gravity of the illness, he said.

The illness included high fever, weakness, severe head and back pain and blisters that broke out around the 10th day, Goldman said. The symptoms contradict some historians' assertions that Lincoln suffered from a mild smallpox infection, Goldman said.

Lincoln resumed a full schedule 25 days after he fell ill, according to records, Goldman said.

Lincoln had at least a 30-percent chance of dying from the disease, Goldman and fellow researcher Dr. Frank C. Schmalstieg said in their study. Although Civil War might have ended the same way, "we don't know what the outcome of the war might have been,`` Goldman said.

But Lincoln's death would have "undoubtedly changed the subsequent history of the country," Goldman said.

While some people in the 1860s were medically immunized against smallpox, there is no evidence that Lincoln had been, according to the UTMB study.

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