- Historic Sites
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
We do not know anything about the childhood diseases of Washington. From the diaries and letters of Washington and from the reports of his doctors and friends, we have an exact knowledge of the illnesses which attacked him after his sixteenth year. In his seventeenth year Washington was graduated from William and Mary College in Virginia as a public surveyor, a profession which he practiced for several years in Fairfax County. At that time great stretches of Virginia were dotted with swamps infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Camping outdoors as a surveyor, Washington was promptly bitten by these malaria-carrying mosquitoes and suffered his first attack of malaria, called “ague.” During his later life Washington had repeated bouts of this intermittent fever.
We have already mentioned the severe case of smallpox which he contracted at nineteen during his sojourn at Barbados. This calamitous trip not only failed to cure the consumption of his brother, who died a few months later, but it brought George into close contact with the virulent tuberculosis bacilli as he nursed his brother, and they promptly invaded his body. Washington had barely returned to Mount Vernon, still weak from the smallpox, when the tubercular infection broke through the exhausted defenses of his system and manifested itself in the form of acute pleurisy. He recovered slowly and was in poor health many long months.
After two years the process must have been arrested, as Washington felt strong enough to enter military service. In October, 1753, he received a commission ;is major in the Virginia militia and was immediately ordered on a fruitless mission to the French commander of the Ohio Territory. During the next year he led a military expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne and was badly defeated. He had hardly returned when he was stricken with a severe attack of malaria.
In 1755 the English general, Edward Braddock, arrived in Virginia with several battalions of English troops. Braddock asked Washington to join his expedition against the French and Indians. The campaign had not progressed far when Washington fell ill with a febrile disease, apparently of the influenza type. He describes the experience in his diary in these words:
On the day before the battle of Monongahela Washington rose from his sickbed, still weak and barely able to sit on his horse. The battle itself, as every schoolboy knows, was a complete disaster. Braddock was killed, his troops were routed, and Washington managed to extricate the remainder of the detachment after two horses had been killed under him and his uniform pierced by four balls. He returned to Mount Vernon and wrote to one of his half brothers: “I am not able were I ever so willing, to meet you in town for I assure you that it is with some difficulty and much fatigue that I visit my plantations in the Neck; so much has a sickness of five weeks duration reduced me.” Two years later Washington contracted a severe type of dysentery accompanied with high lever and deep prostration which lasted for several months. Recovery was so slow and tedious that Washington became depressed and worried about his condition.
In the meantime the English government had sent a new general, John Forbes, with considerable reinforcements for a new campaign against the French and Indians in the Ohio Basin. The tonic of excitement invigorated Washington enough to accompany the English general as the commander of the advance guard. Washington had the great satisfaction that this, the third attempt to defeat the French in which he had participated, was successful. Fort Duquesne was taken and renamed Fort Pitt, later Pittsburgh.
After this campaign Washington resigned his commission, returned, and in January, 1759, married the widow, Martha Custis. Apparently marriage had a beneficial influence on Washington’s health. No sickness is reported in his diaries until 1761 when he had another attack which he believed to be malaria, though it may have been typhoid fever. He was bedfast for several weeks with pain and great prostration. Barely recovered, he had a relapse of fever which made him once more despondent and fearful that he was very near his “last gasp.”
There is no mention of any disabling sickness for the next six years, then he suffered another attack of dysentery. This was followed by the longest period of freedom from illness that Washington ever enjoyed, and which included the long years of the Revolutionary War.