John F. Kennedy projected an image of youth and strength, but the truth was quite different. Growing up, Kennedy had been plagued by a bad back. The usual childhood illnesses seemed to linger on. He had an attack of scarlet fever and had stomach problems that restricted him to a bland diet. He had trouble at school; at the private school Choate, he was stricken with an illness that left him debilitated. Kenneth Crispell and Carlos Gomez write that the precise nature of this malady is uncertain; “he came down with what has been variously described by observers as jaundice, hepatitis, and ‘a blood disease’.” (P. 168) His father sent him to be schooled in England, but after just a month, John withdrew and returned home. The problem was explained as being a blood condition, which Crispell and Gomez say was a term used for either jaundice or hepatitis.
Kennedy was able to enroll in Harvard and enjoyed relatively good health there, although there are reports of some sort of stomach disorder. When Joan and Clay Blair attempted to write a biography of Kennedy, they ran into walls of secrecy concerning his health and it is uncertain what exactly was wrong.
In 1941, John and his older brother Joe joined the Navy. Crispell and Gomez write that their father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., a powerful businessman and former ambassador, pulled strings to get John into the service as his health record would have kept him out. The writers also note that Kennedy joined without a physical. He originally worked in naval intelligence and later; he sought training for PT boats. “Because of the paucity of volunteers for these boats, however, the Navy failed to scrutinize candidates very carefully. In fact, this was one of the few training programs which did not require a physical examination.” (Crispell and Gomez, p. 175).
It is well known that Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, was sunk and Kennedy was able to lead the surviving crew to safety. However, Kennedy’s active Navy service was over. He spent a long time in the hospital and was sent stateside. He had surgery for his bad back. A friend recalled the yellowed coloring of his skin. In later years, Kennedy and his aides would state that Kennedy had contracted malaria during his tour of duty. This was to cover up a more serious situation.
Kennedy had the symptoms of Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands. Thomas Addison, who described the disease, reported that sufferers exhibited lethargy, loss of appetite, pain in the stomach and discolored skin. Kennedy had shown these signs. In earlier years, a diagnosis of Addison’s was generally a death sentence, however, in 1939, a compound called desoxycorticosterone acetate (DOCA) was developed and this compound could substitute for the adrenal hormones lost to the disease. At first, DOCA was injected into patients; later, pellets could be implanted into the back or thighs.
Kennedy may have had a major Addison’s episode in 1947. He had been elected to Congress the previous year and traveled to England. He became ill and asked Pamela Churchill, a family friend to get a doctor. Kennedy was admitted to the London Clinic and Churchill’s doctor friend Sir Daniel Davis told her that Kennedy had Addison’s disease and probably did not have a year to live. However, Kennedy rallied and was able to return home where he was taken to the Lahey Clinic and came under the care of Elmer Bartels, a specialist in thyroid conditions. Bartels began the DOCA pellets, which had to be replaced every three months. Soon, he would become one of the first Addisonians to be treated with cortisone and would arrange to have supplies of both cortisone and DOCA available at safety deposit boxes around the country.
While the medications worked to bring his Addison’s under partial control, he was still plagued with back problems. In 1954, he decided to have a new double fusion surgery performed. Doctors at Lahey advised against it; Addisonians have a weakened resistance to infection. He then brought in two other doctors, Ephraim Shorr of Cornell and Philip Wilson of the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. They decided to proceed although Dr. Barthels kept trying to warn Kennedy to change his mind. The surgery was performed and there were complications. An infection set in and the situation seemed so grave that Kennedy was given the last rites of the Catholic Church, but he rallied. Dr. Wilson later wrote about the operation in the journal Archives of Surgery. Kennedy was not identified by name but there was enough in the description of the patient that would strongly suggest that it was he.
In 1960, Kennedy sought the presidency and during the battle for the Democratic nomination, the question came up about his having Addison’s disease. The Kennedy camp denied the story; the most it would concede would be “some mild adrenal insufficiency.” (Crispell and Gomez, p. 164). But Crispell and Gomez take issue. “The assertion categorically denies that Kennedy had Addison’s disease, yet it mentions the very tests and symptoms associated with the disease.”(ibid) The furor died down and Kennedy was able to win the nomination and later the presidency.
The information in this piece comes from the chapter on John F. Kennedy in: