The theory that a series of major strokes was the reason Woodrow Wilson alienated so many world political leaders during his two terms (1913-1921) as president of the United States has been challenged by one of the nation's foremost ophthalmologists in one of the nation's leading medical journals.
"Ample evidence indicates that Wilson had hypertension and arteriosclerosis hardening of the arteries and had signs of both," Dr. Michael F. Marmor of Stanford University School of Medicine writes in The New England Journal of Medicine. "They may indeed have taken a toll from Wilson over the years . . . but the same can be said for many persons in middle age, and it is hardly equivalent to implying that discrete strokes affected Wilson's behavior and personality at specific times in his career."
Marmor challenged directly the theory by Edwin A. Weinstein in a 1970 scholarly journal and a 1981 book (Woodrow Wilson: a Medical and Psychological Biography) that a series of strokes between 1896 and 1919 was the reason Wilson defied the most powerful members of the Senate whose support he needed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and alienated world political leaders who wanted to amend his Covenant of the League of Nations.
Wilson suffered a major, crippling stroke in October of 1919, which cost him the Democratic nomination for a third term as president and began the speculation that he had suffered previous strokes that caused what many historians thought was an unusual irascibility in dealing with other politicians.
"Weinstein postulates a series of strokes, severe enough to cause physical symptoms and changes in personality over two decades," Marmor wrote. "This is not the usual history of strokes; to find substantial changes of personality without a loss of cognitive power or the development of dementia would be unusual. There is certainly little evidence of cognitive loss in Wilson's academic he taught and was president of Princeton before going into politics or political record up to the time of his breakdown in the fall of 1919."
Marmor wrote that the "strokes" Weinstein said Wilson suffered between 1896 and 1906 were little more than manifestations of writer's cramp and neuritis resulting from his insistence on writing all his correspondence in longhand. Marmor also points out that Wilson was a hypochondriac who often complained of colds, headaches, facial tics, bodily aches and pains, indigestion and bowel irregularities.
"Against this background of chronic--and probably in part psychosomatic -- illness, Weinstein states that the 'first clinical evidence of structural damage to Wilson's nervous system came in late May of 1896 . . . when he suddenly developed weakness and pain in his right arm and numbness in the fingers of his right hand,' " Marmor writes. "Memoirs of his brother-in-law state that 'he contracted in his right hand such a severe case of neuritis that his fingers were almost paralyzed and he had to learn to write with his left hand.' "
Marmor points out that Wilson's neuritis persisted into his presidential years, which he says places Weinstein's diagnosis in perspective.
Says Marmor: "The symptoms consisted of pain more than weakness. The episodes were clearly too persistent to be characterized as transient attacks. They recurred over a 20-year span, which would be most unusual for a series of complicated strokes."
In 1906, Wilson lost most of the sight in his left eye, an illness Weinstein said was due to a "major stroke." Weinstein has argued that the fact that Wilson still had trouble writing with his right hand was further evidence that Wilson suffered a "disease of an internal carotid artery."
"In the first place," Marmor replies, "the symptoms in Wilson's hand and arm were not 'weakness and parasthesia' and were probably not cerebrovascular in origin. He certainly had no right-sided paralytic difficulty in 1906, since he could produce elegant right-handed script."
Marmor's conclusion: Wilson suffered a spontaneous retinal hemorrhage in the left eye, hardly a stroke. His other conclusion: "To call Wilson's behavioral quirks at times of crisis a reaction to stroke is to ignore the likelihood that Wilson -- like all of us -- reacted to fatigue and stress."