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A Medical Profile Of George Washington
Stalwart as he was, the general was often ill. A doctor studies his record and notes shortcomings in Eighteenth-Century medical care.
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
If one looks closely at Gilbert Stuart’s well-known portrait of George Washington, one observes an artificial bulging of the cheeks, as if they had been stuffed with cotton.
It has been reported that Stuart actually did use cotton to fill out the sunken cheeks of the illustrious sitter of this portrait, who at the time was wearing a set of ill-fitting dentures. In 1796), when the picture was painted, Washington was the proud possessor of two sets of these awkward and noisy contraptions, made of ivory. One of them had been manufactured by Paul Revere. Up to the Nineteenth Century dentistry in the modern sense was unknown. When something was wrong with a tooth, it was pulled out. So, at the age of 22, Washington had a toothache which was relieved by having the tooth pulled. This same radical treatment was used for every aching tooth over the years, and by the age of 57 he had hardly any teeth left and had to wear false teeth. Six years later his last surviving tooth was pulled.
In the portrait the head of Washington is covered with a white wig concealing the sparse remains of his own hair. It is reported that this hair had been reddish in his youth, turning, as he said, an early gray in the service of his country. The face of the President is covered with a rosy glaze in the picture. His real complexion was described by his contemporaries as sallow, a color that was even visible through the tan which the sun and wind had burned on his lace.
The painter also carefully retouched the pockmarks that deeply pitted Washington’s features. These blemishes Washington had acquired at the age of nineteen during an ill-fated journey to Barbados Island. He was at that time accompanying his brother and guardian, Lawrence, who was suffering from active tuberculosis of the lungs and was vainly looking for salvation in the balmy climate of the West Indies.
In his diary, Washington notes that he was “strongly attacked” by smallpox and was bedfast for three weeks. When he arose from his sickbed, he bore the marks of the disease and carried them to his grave.
In most portraits, the Father of His Country is shown as having a chest bulging with well deserved pride. The chest must have been tailor-made. Under the well-padded coat, Washington’s chest was Hat and somewhat hollow in the center, probably from early rickets. And the shoulders were not as broad as they appeared from the outside.
Colonel Tobias Lear, his devoted secretary and faithful friend, immediately after the death of the general, took his bodily measurements for posterity. He recorded Washington’s shoulders as one foot nine inches across, which is average for a man of the unusual height of Washington. He measured six feet three and a half inches tall. If Washington was that tall at the age of 67, he must have been at least one inch taller at the prime of life.
Like Lincoln, with whom he had many physical characteristics in common, Washington was in his youth a champion wrestler and rail-splitter. It is a curious phenomenon that the two greatest Presidents of the United States were also physical giants. Even by present standards Washington and Lincoln would be considered as unusually tall men. They were more outstanding for their size/e in their own time, when the average man was considerably smaller.
In spite of great physical strength and endurance, Washington was subjected to a host of diseases in his lifetime. He suffered from at least ten attacks of serious illness which on several occasions brought him to the brink of death. The question is whether Washington had more than his share of sickness in a period of history when a number of diseases were taken for granted, diseases which modern science has virtually conquered and which we have almost forgotten.
In Washington’s world a great percentage of babies died from nutritional deficiencies and diarrhea. If they survived they were exposed to the prevalent epidemics of which the most contagious ones were most apt to be acquired in early childhood. A number of such diseases confer upon their victims, if they recover, a lasting, even lifelong immunity. Therefore they occur rarely in later life, and so were called children’s diseases. Among them were measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and diphtheria. Before the introduction of vaccination, even smallpox was considered a children’s disease in many countries.
If a person in the Eighteenth Century survived the trial period of infancy and childhood, he had to run the gauntlet of a legion of other diseases waiting for him on his life’s path. He was forever threatened by the White Plague, tuberculosis, which was the number one killer of the time. Then there was always malaria lurking in the swamps, ever present the various strains of dysentery easily transmitted by uncooked food and drink, and the enteric fevers—typhoid and paratyphoid, harbored in human carriers and transmitted by food, drinking water and the ubiquitous flies. Ever threatening were the pneumonias of different types.