A President's Illness Kept Under Wraps

Newly revealed documents show how Wilson's inner circle, including physician Grayson, right, tried to conceal his poor health, which preceded a major stroke in 1919. The 28th president was debilitated for the rest of his term.
Newly revealed documents show how Wilson's inner circle, including physician Grayson, right, tried to conceal his poor health, which preceded a major stroke in 1919. The 28th president was debilitated for the rest of his term. (Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2007

STAUNTON, Va. While U.S. troops were fighting in World War I in the summer of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson underwent treatment for a breathing problem in a hushed episode that foreshadowed worse health troubles to come.

The White House doctor, Cary T. Grayson, later recounted the incident to his wife in one of a slew of newly public documents that show how far Wilson's innermost circle went to conceal his frail condition amid major world events.

" The patient is progressing most satisfactorily, so far, and I have good reasons to hope for a most beneficial result. It has been a big undertaking. . . . No one knows anything about it except Miss E., Miss Harkins, Hoover -- It is one secret that has been kept quiet, so far, and I think it is safe all right now," the doctor wrote Alice Grayson in a July 16 telegram.

The episode, which caused Grayson great anxiety, most likely involved an operation to remove polyps from the president's nose, according to Michael Dickens, a Charlottesville physician familiar with Wilson's medical history and the telegram. Historians say the telegram indicates that the procedure was then known only to Grayson; the president's wife, Edith Wilson; a nurse; and a White House usher.

Grayson's account was revealed to the public recently through a cache of personal files his family donated to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library here in the Shenandoah Valley. The letters, photographs and other documents had been stored for decades at a family home in Fauquier County.

The papers offer new insight into the 28th president's fragile health and how those around him tried to keep it quiet. Although historians have known for years about Wilson's debilitating stroke in late 1919 and his poor health beforehand, including previous possible strokes, the estimated 10,000 documents in the Grayson collection offer fresh and intimate details about the president's mental and physical condition from a man whom several Wilson biographers call an extraordinary eyewitness: his personal physician.

"He literally had his finger on the pulse of the president," said historian A. Scott Berg, who has been studying the Grayson papers for a forthcoming Wilson biography. "Dr. Grayson enjoyed a unique position in Woodrow Wilson's life as both his personal physician and a personal friend."

The Grayson documents are the first major donation to the eight - year-old Wilson library, which unveiled them in late December on C-SPAN. The documents are drawing historians to this city two hours southwest of the Washington area where Wilson was born to a Presbyterian minister and his wife 150 years ago. Researchers say about 15 percent of the documents have been explored so far.

Grayson, born in Culpeper County in 1878 to a well-connected Virginia family, was a naval surgeon who rose to the rank of rear admiral.

At the family home in Upperville, Cary T. Grayson Jr. is surrounded by black-and-white photos of his father in an impeccable Navy uniform posing with his "number one patient," as the elder Grayson sometimes called the president. The younger Grayson, now 87, lives there with his wife, Priscilla. He said the papers reveal that the doctor-patient relationship was about much more than health.

In the doctor's weekly planners, now at the library, Grayson chronicled frequent golf games, automobile rides and nights of theater with the president. From inauguration day in 1913, when they met, to the Sunday morning in February 1924 when Wilson died, Grayson was an almost constant companion. He stayed often at the White House, traveled with Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was one of a few people who saw him regularly after his stroke that October.

The stroke was a turning point for Wilson's presidency and, many argue, the world. Wilson collapsed Oct. 2 in the White House after a national tour seeking support for the Treaty of Versailles and America's entrance into the League of Nations. He went into seclusion for the remainder of his presidency. The treaty he had so strongly championed was rejected by the Senate in March 1920.


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