The True George Washington: Physique: Illness and Disease

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Illness and Disease

Despite his strength and constitution, Washington was frequently the victim of illness. What diseases of childhood he suffered are not known, but presumably measles was among them, for when his wife within the first year of married life had an attack he cared for her without catching the complaint. The first of his known illnesses was "Ague and Feaver, which I had to an extremity" about 1748, or when he was sixteen.

In the sea voyage to Barbadoes in 1751, the seamen told Washington that "they had never seen such weather before," and he says in his diary that the sea "made the Ship rowl much and me very sick." While in the island, he went to dine with a friend "with great reluctance, as the small-pox was in his family." A fortnight later Washington "was strongly attacked with the small Pox," which confined him for nearly a month, and, as already noted, marked his face for life. Shortly after the return voyage he was "taken with a violent pleurise, which ... reduced me very low."

During the Braddock march, "immediately upon our leaving the camp at George's Creek, on the 14th, ... I was seized with violent fevers and pains in my head, which continued without intermission 'till the 23d following, when I was relieved, by the General's [Braddock] absolutely ordering the physicians to give me Dr. James' powders (one of the most excellent medicines in the world), for it gave me immediate ease, and removed my fevers and other complaints in four days' time. My illness was too violent to suffer me to ride; therefore I was indebted to a covered wagon for some part of my transportation; but even in this I could not continue far, for the jolting was so great, I was left upon the road with a guard, and necessaries, to wait the arrival of Colonel Dunbar's detachment which was two days' march behind us, the General giving me his word of honor, that I should be brought up, before he reached the French fort. This promise, and the doctor's threats, that, if I persevered in my attempts to get on, in the condition I was, my life would be endangered, determined me to halt for the above detachment." Immediately upon his return from that campaign, he told a brother, "I am not able, were I ever so willing, to meet you in town, for I assure you it is with some difficulty, and with much fatigue, that I visit my plantations in the Neck; so much has a sickness of five weeks' continuance reduced me."

On the frontier, towards the end of 1757, he was seized with a violent attack of dysentery and fever, which compelled him to leave the army and retire to Mount Vernon. Three months later he said, "I have never been able to return to my command, ... my disorder at times returning obstinately upon me, in spite of the efforts of all the sons of Aesculapius, whom I have hitherto consulted. At certain periods I have been reduced to great extremity, and have too much reason to apprehend an approaching decay, being visited with several symptoms of such a disease.... I am now under a strict regimen, and shall set out to-morrow for Williamsburg to receive the advice of the best physician there. My constitution is certainly greatly impaired, and ... nothing can retrieve it, but the greatest care and the most circumspect conduct." It was in this journey that he met his future wife, and either she or the doctor cured him, for nothing more is heard of his approaching "decay."

In 1761 he was attacked with a disease which seems incidental to new settlements, known in Virginia at that time as the "river fever," and a hundred years later, farther west, as the "break-bone fever," and which, in a far milder form, is to-day known as malaria. Hoping to cure it, he went over the mountains to the Warm Springs, being "much overcome with the fatigue of the ride and weather together. However, I think my fevers are a good deal abated, although my pains grow rather worse, and my sleep equally disturbed. What effect the waters may have upon me I can't say at present, but I expect nothing from the air?this certainly must be unwholesome. I purpose staying here a fortnight and longer if benefitted." After writing this, a relapse brought him "very near my last gasp. The indisposition ... increased upon me, and I fell into a very low and dangerous state. I once thought the grim king would certainly master my utmost efforts, and that I must sink, in spite of a noble struggle; but thank God, I have now got the better of the disorder, and shall soon be restored, I hope, to perfect health again."

During the Revolution, fortunately, he seems to have been wonderfully exempt from illness, and not till his retirement to Mount Vernon did an old enemy, the ague, reappear. In 1786 he said, in a letter, "I write to you with a very aching head and disordered frame.... Saturday last, by an imprudent act, I brought on an ague and fever on Sunday, which returned with violence Tuesday and Thursday; and, if Dr. Craik's efforts are ineffectual I shall have them again this day." His diary gives the treatment: "Seized with an ague before 6 o'clock this morning after having laboured under a fever all night?Sent for Dr. Craik who arrived just as we were setting down to dinner; who, when he thought my fever sufficiently abated gave me cathartick and directed the Bark to be applied in the Morning. September 2. Kept close to the House to day, being my fit day in course least any exposure might bring it on,?happily missed it September 14. At home all day repeating dozes of Bark of which I took 4 with an interval of 2 hours between."

With 1787 a new foe appeared in the form of "a rheumatic complaint which has followed me more than six months, is frequently so bad that it is sometimes with difficulty I can raise my hand to my head or turn myself in bed."

During the Presidency Washington had several dangerous illnesses, but the earliest one had a comic side. In his tour through New England in 1789, so Sullivan states, "owing to some mismanagement in the reception ceremonials at Cambridge, Washington was detained a long time, and the weather being inclement, he took cold. For several days afterward a severe influenza prevailed at Boston and its vicinity, and was called the Washington Influenza." He himself writes of this attack: "Myself much disordered by a cold, and inflammation in the left eye."

Six months later, in New York, he was "indisposed with a bad cold, and at home all day writing letters on private business," and this was the beginning of "a severe illness," which, according to McVickar, was "a case of anthrax, so malignant as for several days to threaten mortification. During this period Dr. Bard never quitted him. On one occasion, being left alone with him, General Washington, looking steadily in his face, desired his candid opinion as to the probable termination of his disease, adding, with that placid firmness which marked his address, 'Do not flatter me with vain hopes; I am not afraid to die, and therefore can bear the worst!' Dr. Bard's answer, though it expressed hope, acknowledged his apprehensions. The President replied, 'Whether to-night or twenty years hence, makes no difference.'" It was of this that Maclay wrote, "Called to see the President. Every eye full of tears. His life despaired of. Dr. MacKnight told me he would trifle neither with his own character nor the public expectation; his danger was imminent, and every reason to expect that the event of his disorder would be unfortunate."

During his convalescence the President wrote to a correspondent, "I have the pleasure to inform you, that my health is restored, but a feebleness still hangs upon me, and I am much incommoded by the incision, which was made in a very large and painful tumor on the protuberance of my thigh. This prevents me from walking or sitting. However, the physicians assure me that it has had a happy effect in removing my fever, and will tend very much to the establishment of my general health; it is in a fair way of healing, and time and patience only are wanting to remove this evil. I am able to take exercise in my coach, by having it so contrived as to extend myself the full length of it." He himself seems to have thought this succession of illness due to the fatigues of office, for he said,?

"Public meetings, and a dinner once a week to as many as my table will hold, with the references to and from the different department of state and other communications with all parts of the Union, are as much, if not more, than I am able to undergo; for I have already had within less than a year, two severe attacks, the last worst than the first. A third, more than probable, will put me to sleep with my fathers. At what distance this may be I know not. Within the last twelve months I have undergone more and severer sickness, than thirty preceding years afflicted me with. Put it all together I have abundant reason, however, to be thankful that I am so well recovered; though I still feel the remains of the violent affection of my lungs; the cough, pain in my breast, and shortness in breathing not having entirely left me."

While at Mount Vernon in 1794, "an exertion to save myself and horse from falling among the rocks at the Lower Falls of the Potomac (whither I went on Sunday morning to see the canal and locks),... wrenched my back in such a manner as to prevent my riding;" the "hurt" "confined me whilst I was at Mount Vernon," and it was some time before he could "again ride with ease and safety." In this same year Washington was operated on by Dr. Tate for cancer,?the same disorder from which his mother had suffered.

After his retirement from office, in 1798, he "was seized with a fever, of which I took little notice until I was obliged to call for the aid of medicine; and with difficulty a remission thereof was so far effected as to dose me all night on thursday with Bark?which having stopped it, and weakness only remaining, will soon wear off as my appetite is returning;" and to a correspondent he apologized for not sooner replying, and pleaded "debilitated health, occasioned by the fever wch. deprived me of 20 lbs. of the weight I had when you and I were at Troy Mills Scales, and rendered writing irksome."

A glance at Washington's medical knowledge and opinions may not lack interest. In the "Rules of civility" he had taken so to heart, the boy had been taught that "In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein," but plantation life trained every man to a certain extent in physicking, and the yearly invoice sent to London always ordered such drugs as were needed,?ipecacuanha, jalap, Venice treacle, rhubarb, diacordium, etc., as well as medicines for horses and dogs. In 1755 Washington received great benefit from one quack medicine, "Dr. James's Powders;" he once bought a quantity of another, "Godfrey's Cordial;" and at a later time Mrs. Washington tried a third, "Annatipic Pills." More unenlightened still was a treatment prescribed for Patsy Custis, when "Joshua Evans who came here last night, put a [metal] ring on Patsey (for Fits)." A not much higher order of treatment was Washington sending for Dr. Laurie to bleed his wife, and, as his diary notes, the doctor "came here, I may add, drunk," so that a night's sleep was necessary before the service could be rendered. When the small-pox was raging in the Continental Army, even Washington's earnest request could not get the Virginia Assembly to repeal a law which forbade inoculation, and he had to urge his wife for over four years before he could bring her to the point of submitting to the operation. One quality which implies greatness is told by a visitor, who states that in his call "an allusion was made to a serious fit of illness he had recently suffered; but he took no notice of it" Custis notes that "his aversion to the use of medicine was extreme; and, even when in great suffering, it was only by the entreaties of his lady, and the respectful, yet beseeching look of his oldest friend and companion in arms (Dr. James Craik) that he could be prevailed upon to take the slightest preparation of medicine." In line with this was his refusal to take anything for a cold, saying, "Let it go as it came," though this good sense was apparently restricted to his own colds, for Watson relates that in a visit to Mount Vernon "I was extremely oppressed by a severe cold and excessive coughing, contracted by the exposure of a harsh journey. He pressed me to use some remedies, but I declined doing so. As usual, after retiring my coughing increased. When some time had elapsed, the door of my room was gently opened, and, on drawing my bed-curtains, to my utter astonishment, I beheld Washington himself, standing at my bedside, with a bowl of hot tea in his hand."

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