When I was in high school, my history teacher told us that William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, died in 1841 from pneumonia because he didn’t wear a hat when he stood in the cold for hours during his inauguration. After 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 doesn’t kill anyone, unless perhaps it’s a metal helmet that saves you from a fatal bullet in a battle, or a bicycle helmet when you fall off your bike.
Why President Harrison Didn’t Wear a Hat or Coat
William Henry Harrison was a U.S. military officer and politician who died of pneumonia 31 days into his term, to become the first president to die in office. He was 68 years and 23 days old, and at that time, the average life expectancy for a man was only 38 years. He was the oldest person to be elected president until 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at age 69. The current record for the oldest president at inauguration is Donald Trump who, on January 20, 2017, was inaugurated at age 70 years and 220 days.
To win the election, Harrison had to give voters the impression that he was fit, able and vigorous enough to be president. He believed that he had lost the previous presidential election because voters thought that he was too old to become president, so this time his entire campaign strategy ignored current issues and was based on “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the fact that as a vigorous soldier 25 years earlier he had defeated the Shawnee Indian chief, Tecumseh, at Tippecanoe. At his inauguration, in temperatures in the low thirties with intermittent rain, he displayed his youthful appearance by not wearing a hat to let the long hair of his wig hang down on his shoulders, and not wearing a coat to display his slim athletic figure with no obvious belly fat. After that, he rode on horseback to the ceremony rather than in the closed carriage, and it took him more than two hours to give the longest inaugural address ever of 8,445 words. It would have been much longer if his friend, Daniel Webster, had not shortened it considerably. Then he rode in the inaugural parade for more than an hour and went to three inaugural celebrations that took him through most of the night.
At Least He Wasn’t Killed by his Doctors, as were Presidents Washington and Garfield
On March 26, 1841, 23 days after his inauguration, he developed a cough which progressively worsened, so his doctors applied heated suction cups all over his body. Then they treated him with ipecac, castor oil, mercury-containing calomel, crude petroleum and Virginia snakeroot. He died on April 4, 1841, nine days after his first symptoms appeared and one month after becoming president.
The President should have had the best medical care in the world, but instead, Harrison was treated with ineffective poisons:
• mercury in calomel that could have damaged his immune system (J Prev Med Public Health, Mar 2014;47(2):74–83),
• castor oil that causes diarrhea,
• ipecac that causes vomiting,
• petroleum used to make gasoline
• Virginia snakeroot, an herbal folk medicine believed to treat snake bites but never has been shown scientifically to do so. This herb is used today to treat (ineffectively) cold symptoms, lack of appetite, irregular periods, lack of sexual desire, seizures, rabies and lots of other conditions.
Harrison did refuse the standard treatment of the day, bloodletting, where his doctors would draw blood from his veins. This is the treatment that killed George Washington, the first president of the United States. Washington’s doctors repeatedly drew blood from him until he went into shock from loss of blood and died. President Garfield‘s doctors killed him when they tried to remove an assassin’s bullet with their dirty hands, causing the introduction of a fatal infection.
President Harrison was Probably 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 because he shook thousands of people’s hands and breathed infected air from them that caused him to become infected with the germ that caused his final pneumonia. Germs are spread at least as much by touching hands as by coughing into the air. Today, Harrison would have been treated with antibiotics and might even have lived through a second term in office. Since Harrison didn’t become sick until March 27th, 23 days after his epic inauguration speech, it is possibly too long an incubation period for him to have picked up the germ during his inauguration.
Being Chilled is Unlikely to Cause Pneumonia
Pneumonia is caused by an infection, but it is controversial whether being chilled increases risk for infections (Critical Care, Feb 3, 2011;15:R48). Influenza virus infections peak in the wintertime, since flu viruses appear to be more stable in cool dry wintertime weather (Environ Health Perspect, Apr, 2011;119(4):439–445). Exercise-induced asthma is not caused by exercise. It is caused by breathing dry cold air that irritates and cracks the mucous layer lining the bronchial tubes. Breathing winter-time indoor heated air with low-relative humidity cracks inner linings of the bronchial tubes which may increase risk for influenza infections that can lead to pneumonia (PloS One, June 24, 2011).
Lessons from President Harrison
• Being chilled by not wearing a hat or coat in cold weather does not kill you as long as you don’t develop hypothermia (too low body temperature) or frostbite (frozen skin)
• Infections are caused by germs (such as the current coronavirus SARS-Cov-2)
• President Harrison had a bacterial pneumonia that could have been cured by antibiotics that were not available until the 1940s, more than a hundred years after he died.
• He likely picked up his infection by shaking thousands of hands during his campaign or breathing air spewed out by thousands of infected people. Today, COVID-19 is caused by touching virus-filled objects such as hands and breathing virus-filled air.
• The most effective way to avoid infections such as COVID-19 is to avoid breathing in air within several hours after being breathed out by infected people and to avoid touching anything that has been touched recently by an infected person.
William Henry Harrison
February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841