President Harrison Didn't Die How We Thought

New diagnosis: It wasn't pneumonia from inauguration; it was illness from sewage

By John Johnson,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 1, 2014 4:13 PM CDT | Updated Apr 5, 2014 7:00 PM CDT

(Newser) – The history books tell us that William Henry Harrison died just a month after taking office in 1841 because he caught pneumonia while delivering a too-long inaugural address in lousy weather. Now, modern epidemiology is revising the diagnosis. In the New York Times, Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak write that Harrison's real killer seems to be a gastrointestinal illness called enteric fever. And instead of blaming the inauguration ceremony, we can instead blame a marshy area of raw sewage near the White House.

In the days before DC had a sewer system, sewage stagnated near the White House, just blocks from its water supply. Harrison likely picked up an infection, which was worsened by the standard treatments of the day, they explain. While Harrison's doctor didn't bleed the president, he did administer opium, which would have made it difficult for Harrison's intestine to rid itself of pathogens. Harrison probably got an enema, too, which could have helped the bacteria spread to the bloodstream. "As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock," write McHugh and Mackowiak in diagnosing enteric fever. The pneumonia played a secondary role. Click for their full post.

A portrait of William Henry Harrison.
A portrait of William Henry Harrison.   (?)
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