“Ol’ Rough n’ Ready” Zachary Taylor was the twelfth president of the United States. He was a brave and tough man who fought many battles from the War of 1812 to the Mexican War.
On the Fourth of July, 1850, President Taylor was in good health and attended a Sunday school program, where he ate a couple of green apples. After that, he attended a groundbreaking ceremony for construction of the Washington Monument. Then he went back to the White House and ate a large bowl of cherries, and drank cold water and milk.
SYMPTOMS: That night he started to feel sick, he vomited a few times and his belly started to hurt. The next day he developed bloody diarrhea, and when his temperature rose very high, he called his doctor. The doctor told him he must have cholera, gave him calomel, opium and quinine, and drew blood. He did not send it off to a laboratory as we do nowadays. He drew blood because doctors treated almost every disease with blood- letting.
In spite of this treatment he continued vomiting, his belly cramps worsened, and his bloody diarrhea become explosive. He cried out when the doctors tried to touch his belly. His temperature kept rising higher and higher and he died in his bed on the evening of July 9th, the fifth day of his illness, at age 64.
DIAGNOSES AT THAT TIME: The doctors diagnosed food poisoning from eating too many cherries and drinking too much unpasteurized milk and water. They had to be wrong because food poisoning doesn’t cause a fever that keeps on rising to very high levels.
Other people claimed that he died of malaria, because he was very sick with malaria when he fought in Mexico, but malaria is not characterized by vomiting and diarrhea.
Many people thought that he had been poisoned by Southerners who were angered by Taylor’s moderate stance on slavery. The most common chemical used to poison people of that period was arsenic. However, arsenic poisoning does not cause high fever, diarrhea and vomiting.
To put the poisoning theory to rest almost 150 years later, in 1991, Taylor’s descendants had his body removed from its Kentucky grave and sent samples of his hair and fingernails to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Arsenic levels were well below levels that could have killed him. He couldn’t possibly have been killed by arsenic poisoning.
THE REAL DIAGNOSIS: The only tenable diagnosis has to be based on the fact that he was well, on a hot day, ate a lot of food that could have been contaminated with some germ, and then developed diarrhea and vomiting and fever that had to be caused by an infection. High fever is a hallmark for infection with intestinal bacteria called salmonella typhosa.
The extremely painful belly that hurt so much when doctors touched it was probably caused by a rupture of his intestines that leaked intestinal contents into his belly.
He died from a food-borne infection that was common in those days called typhoid fever. Today, he would be cured by taking antibiotics.
SIMILAR DISEASES IN OTHER PRESIDENTS: The previous president, James K. Polk, died of cholera and “debilitating diarrhea”. Thomas Jefferson probably died of amoebic dysentery.
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