How Doctors Contributed to John F. Kennedy's Death
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 because the second shot hit him in the head and killed him.
• If he had not been wearing a back brace, he might have lurched forward after the first shot and the second shot would have missed him.
• He wore the back brace because in high school, he was treated for colitis with cortisone which causes osteoporosis that weakened his spine and caused terrible back pain.
• After winning his first seat as U.S. Representative in 1947, he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a shutdown of his adrenal glands that prevented his body from making its own cortisone, so he had to continue taking cortisone pills.
• In 1950, he had spinal surgery because of severe back pain caused by osteoporosis. Back surgery on people with osteoporosis usually fails because the bones of the back are too weak to heal properly.
The Fatal Bullet
Most witnesses to the assassination recalled hearing three shots (John McAdams, "Dealey Plaza Earwitnesses", The Kennedy Assassination, Marquette University, 2012). The wife of Governor John Connolly testified that right after hearing a first loud noise that came from somewhere behind her and to her right, she heard a second gunshot and then the limousine’s rear interior was covered with fragments of skull, blood and brain matter. According to the Warren Commission, the second shot struck the President. The House Select Committee concluded that the final shot was a fourth shot and that there were two shooters, one of whom missed the president.
After the first shot, most people would have been thrown forward, and the president would have been immediately covered by secret service officers, but this president was unable to bend forward so he stayed upright. A stiff back brace that was prescribed by his doctors prevented him from lurching forward, which allowed a second bullet to pass through his head and kill him. An article describing Kennedy’s medical history appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (December 2002;290(5)). I can share some of President Kennedy’s story because I went to the same schools, lived in the same area, and knew some of the doctors in the story.
Osteoporosis: Kennedy wore the back brace because he had osteoporosis that had caused the bones in his spine to break. The osteoporosis was caused by heavy doses of cortisone that were prescribed by his doctor for the wrong reasons while he was still in high school.
Colitis: In high school, Kennedy weighed only 117 pounds and could not gain weight, no matter how much he ate. He developed bloody diarrhea and was diagnosed with colitis. Doctors wrongly thought that this might have been caused by allergies, so he was given a ridiculous diet of peas, corn and prunes. That succeeded in causing even more weight loss, and it did not stop his diarrhea or cramping. In the late 1930s, doctors discovered another way to treat colitis: cortisone-type drugs. They placed time-release pellets of cortisone under his skin. Cortisone-type drugs make people feel good and gain weight, and they help to relieve pain from colitis and arthritis, but they have horrible side effects. They weaken bones to cause osteoporosis, they knock off a person’s immunity to make him susceptible to all sorts of infections, and they shut down the adrenal glands so the person no longer makes his own cortisone that is necessary to stay alive.
Venereal diseases: During his undergraduate days at Harvard, Kennedy was reported to have been treated at least three times for venereal diseases that started a lifetime of urinary tract problems. His immunity must have been compromised because of the cortisone he took.
Addison's Disease: After winning a seat in Congress in 1947, he became very sick and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, an inability of the body to make cortisone. We know that taking cortisone could shut down his own adrenal glands to deprive his body of its own natural production of cortisone. All people who take cortisone for more than a week should be cautioned that in the next several months:
• if they are in an accident, they may need an immediate shot of cortisone, and
• if they need surgery, they should probably be given a cortisone injection prior to surgery.
Since their adrenal glands are unable to produce cortisone, their blood pressure may drop and they can go into shock and die. Cortisone is necessary to maintain blood pressure in times of physical crisis.
Back Surgery: In 1950, his back hurt so much that doctors operated on his back. At that time, his X rays showed that he had severe osteoporosis. His bones had been turned to chalk by the cortisone that he was taking. Because of this, he was worse off after each of his many back surgeries.
Drugs He Took While the World Depended on Him
Kennedy was the President of the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation that could have destroyed the world with both sides aiming atomic missiles at each other. At that time, submarines on both sides carried loaded atomic missiles and the president who made the decisions about using nuclear bombs was taking phenobarbital, cortisone, testosterone, antibiotics, paregoric and metamucil, drugs that could have affected the many decisions he had to make. Testosterone was given to help him gain weight, develop larger muscles and make him feel good, but it could make him manic and cause him to make unrealistic decisions. Phenobarbitol was given to make him feel better, but it can dull a person’s senses. Cortisone was given to replace what he lacked from his inactive adrenal glands, but it can make a person manic. Antibiotics can cause intestinal cramping and gas, and paregoric can make a person sleepy.
Sequence of Medical Harm
President Kennedy had been correctly diagnosed with colitis, but received all sorts of ineffective treatments and ended up taking cortisone. In his college years, he picked up a venereal disease that could have caused arthritis, prompting his doctors to increase his doses of cortisone because it would help to relieve the terrible pain in his joints. The cortisone suppressed his adrenal glands so he was diagnosed as having Addison’s disease, a condition in which a person's body cannot make cortisone, so he must take cortisone-type drugs. The cortisone drugs destroyed the bones of his back so he needed to wear a back brace just to sit up. And the back brace prevented him from lurching forward when he was shot the first time, so he remained upright, allowing a second bullet to pass through his brain and kill him.
Kennedy's medical history and the role of his back brace in his death are now only of historical interest, but there is a valuable message in his story. All patients have a right to ask questions and an obligation to themselves to learn as much as possible about their conditions and diseases. If they have questions about a doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, they should seek a second opinion from a doctor who is not in the same practice and not a close friend of the original doctor.
Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities.