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The Death of President Harrison

When I was in high school, I read in my history textbook that William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, died from pneumonia because he didn’t wear a hat when he stood in the cold for hours during his inauguration. After reading that, I wore my woolen stocking cap pulled down over my ears on cold days so I wouldn't die of pneumonia. It wasn't until I was in medical school that I realized that not wearing a hat did not kill the President Harrison. I will tell you what really killed him, but first you should know something about the events leading to his death.

Why President Harrison Didn’t Wear a Hat
William Henry Harrison ran for president of the United States in 1836 on the fame he gathered 25 years before when he defeated the Shawnee Indian chief, Tecumseh, at Tippecanoe. He lost the election to Martin Van Buren because his countrymen considered that at age 68, he was too old to be president. At that time, the average life expectancy for a man was only 38 years.

Four years later he again ran for president and decided to avoid the mistake that lost him the election four years earlier. Instead of running on the issues of the day, he ran on the campaign to make people think that he was a young man. His campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, a reference to his military victory over the Indians. That slogan was designed to make people think of him as a great young fighter, and it worked because he was elected the ninth president of the United States. On his inauguration day, the weather suddenly turned very cold with the temperature dropping into the low thirties and cold rain chilled every person brave enough to attend the inauguration. To keep up his image of youth, he demonstrated his great endurance by speaking for more than an hour, wearing neither a hat nor an overcoat, before a shivering audience that knew that he was freezing also.

Because he did not wear a hat, the audience could see his long hair (actually a wig) hanging down on his shoulders, and because he did not wear an overcoat, they could see his youthful figure and absence of a fat belly because of his very active lifestyle.

Going Hatless in Cold Weather Does Not Cause Pneumonia
In medical school I learned that not wearing a coat or hat does not cause pneumonia and it did not kill William Henry Harrison. Harrison didn’t become sick until March 27th, 23 days after his heroic inauguration speech, which is too long an incubation period for him to have picked up the germ during his inauguration.

At Least He Wasn’t Killed by his Doctors, as were Presidents Washington and Garfield
The President of the United States should have had the best medical care in the world. Instead, Harrison’s pneumonia was treated with ineffective poisons: mercury that was worthless to him, castor oil that caused diarrhea, ipecac that caused vomiting and brandy that dulled his brain. However, he refused the standard treatment of the day, bloodletting: having his doctors draw blood from his veins. Therefore, he was not killed by his doctors in the same way as George Washington, the first president of the United States. Washington’s doctors repeatedly drew blood from him until he went into shock and died.

President Harrison Was Killed by Shaking Too Many Hands
I know that cold weather doesn’t kill people unless they can’t get out of the cold and die of low body temperature called hypothermia. William Henry Harrison probably died of shaking thousands of people’s hands during his first month in office. Germs are spread more by touching hands than by coughing in a person’s face. Today, Harrison would have been treated with antibiotics and might even have lived through a second term in office.

July 21st, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

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. Read More
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