Monday, September 29, 2014

Death in the White House: William Henry Harrison

I am back on the infectious diseases consult service this week so my attention will be diverted to clinical care. Regarding infectious diseases cases, here is an interesting article published in Clinical Infection Diseases titled Death in the White House: President William Henry Harrison's Atypical Pneumonia.

The article challenges the long maintained notion that pneumonia killed William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) just 1 month after he became the ninth president of the United States. A careful review of the detailed case summary written by his personal physician suggests that enteric fever, not pneumonia, was the disorder that killed the president.  

Although President Harrison did have some pulmonary symptoms, the case summary highlights the progressive abdominal symptoms that ultimately led to sepsis and death. Emphasis is placed on the unsanitary condition of early 19th century Washington, DC. The water supply of the White House was 7 blocks down from a repository of ''night soil", a euphemism for human feces. Given that a sewage system was non-existent, runoff most likely contaminated the water supply, increasing the likelihood of enteric fever. 

I previously blogged about the death of President Garfield, as chronicled in the Destiny of the Republic, another worthwhile read.

Then, as in now, physicians subscribed to the tenet of primum non nocere. Ironically, unbeknownst to them, the treatments, both in the cases of Presidents Garfield and Harrison, were toxic and led to greater harm than good. 

Good intentions, bad results.

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