The Disease That Almost Felled Abraham Lincoln - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Trump isn't the first president to catch a deadly virus.

By Fiona Zublin

Friday’s stunning news about President Donald Trump contracting the coronavirus raised all sorts of questions about the pandemic, the impending election, the global economy and national security. Could there be a worse time to fall prey to a potentially fatal illness? Yes. Just ask Abraham Lincoln, who fought smallpox in the middle of the Civil War.

On the train back from giving his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Lincoln started to feel the symptoms: a nasty headache, so bad he had to lie down. He was sick for a month at least, and while he wasn’t on official quarantine, visitors were sparse in those weeks and actually banned during the worst of the disease in late November.

There was a not-great vaccine for smallpox at the time, now famous as the only infectious disease that’s ever been completely eradicated from the earth, but it’s not clear Lincoln ever received it. Despite his struggles, the historical record indicates that Lincoln’s doctors assured him (and the nation, still at war) that his was a mild form of the disease known as varioloid, which killed far fewer people who contracted it. All staff and residents of the White House were vaccinated after the president’s diagnosis. He remained in good spirits, reportedly joking that at last he could satisfy all his White House visitors as he had “something he could give to everybody.”

A 2007 analysis of his symptoms concluded Lincoln likely had a serious case of the disease.

We can never know what might have happened if Lincoln had died in 1863, with the nation still split in two. The Battle of Gettysburg that July is now seen as the war’s turning point, but Lincoln had yet to even issue the Emancipation Proclamation when he fell ill. A 2007 analysis of his symptoms in the Journal of Medical Biography concluded that Lincoln likely had a serious case of the disease — but by Dec. 14, 1863, he was his old self again.

Not everyone was so lucky. It’s not clear that Lincoln’s African American valet, William Johnson, actually got the disease from the president: “There was a widespread smallpox epidemic in Washington at the time,” writes Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein in Lincoln and Medicine, “so both Lincoln and Johnson could have gotten the disease anywhere.” Johnson, who was also an employee of the Treasury Department, nursed Lincoln during his illness, contracted the disease and died in January 1864.

Lincoln paid for Johnson’s coffin and paid off part of a $150 bank loan Johnson had taken out, arranging with the bank to forgive the other half. While there’s some dispute as to where Johnson is actually buried, a headstone bearing his name and the word “Citizen” in Arlington Cemetery is widely thought to be his final resting place. Still, even if Lincoln could take the financial responsibility, he couldn’t take the blame for Johnson’s illness: “He did not catch it from me, however,” Lincoln told a reporter, when Johnson was so sick he couldn’t even sign his own name to draw his paycheck. “At least I think not.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories