Microbes in the Mansion: US Presidents and their Bacteria

The often surprising truth about presidential-bacterial connections.

With so much media coverage of presidential matters over the past year, and particularly with last week’s inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, you might think every possible presidential angle has been covered.

This, though, would be seriously underestimating your good friends here at uBiome.

For it is with considerable pleasure this week that we bring you a collection of presidential bacteria stories over a time period beginning with the first president, and ending with the 44th.

Let’s start with number nine, William Henry Harrison, who has entered the record books for at least two significant achievements.

The first was delivering the longest inaugural address in history, speaking for an hour and 45 minutes in a DC snowstorm, without an overcoat, gloves, or scarf.

The second (perhaps not entirely disconnected)?

Harrison was the first president to die in office – exactly one month after being sworn in – which for 150 years was widely claimed to be because of pneumonia he developed after standing in the cold for so long.

However, thanks to some excellent detective work by two researchers – Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak – it’s now believed that President Harrison died of enteric fever (also known as paratyphoid fever) brought on by gastroenteritis, a bacterial infection.

What’s more, the recent research uncovered the fact that two other presidents of that era, James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor, are also believed to have died from gastrointestinal infections.

And the thinking is that this sickness came about through unsanitary conditions.

Very possibly, there may have been no hand-wash in the White House.

Actually, in the 1840s, Washington DC’s systems for the disposal of what was then euphemistically termed “night soil” were, to say the least, primitive.

Not to put too fine a point on it, barrels of fecal sludge were hauled through the streets of Washington DC at government expense, and dumped in a depository where the sludge stagnated and formed a marsh.

Unfortunately, this was just seven blocks from the White House water supply, and it was therefore probably no surprise that these three presidents became, well, ex-presidents.

As a matter of fact, bacteria probably also played a part in the demise of the very first president, George Washington.

His life was plagued by numerous serious diseases, mostly of a viral nature, but his death in 1799 at the age of 67 may have been partly the result of epiglottitis, a throat infection that can be caused by the Haemophilus influenzae bacterium, following a serious cold Washington developed.

Yet another presidential death associated with bacteria was the sad case of William McKinley, who was shot by an assassin at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

Two bullets were fired into McKinley’s body, but only one was retrieved.

A projectile in his stomach was elusive, so a hastily-gathered surgical team, led by a gynecologist, stitched up the President with the ammo still inside him.

One of his aides, concerned about this laissez-faire surgical attitude got in touch with Thomas Edison, requesting that the inventor lend them an x-ray machine, which was delivered but never used.

Soon after, McKinley died – not from the bullet itself, but from septic shock caused by a bacterial infection which led to the development of gangrene along the pathway taken by the bullet.

A bacterial infection also took the life, not of Calvin Coolidge himself, but his son, Calvin Coolidge Jr.

Tragically, Coolidge Jr. developed a simple blister on his toe while playing lawn tennis on the White House grounds.

Unfortunately, the blister became infected with the very common Staphylococcus aureus, which most of us carry on the surface of our skin, but in the case of President Coolidge’s son, led to his rapid demise.

It’s sobering to note that, although a simple course of antibiotics would have almost certainly prevented this death in 1924, this occurred just four years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first true antibiotic.

And it’s kind of ironic that less than a century later, the 44th President, Barack Obama, issued an Executive Order in 2014 seeking to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a phenomenon that has been largely brought about by the overuse of antibiotics, with the Center for Disease and Prevention estimating that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths annually in the US.

George W. Bush made one of two presidential addresses relating to bacteria in November 2011 after the US had experienced a series of deadly anthrax attacks just a week after 9/11. Anthrax is a bacterium that was first identified in 1875 by the German scientist Robert Koch.

The other microbe-related presidential speech was made by Bill Clinton in 1996 after a team of US meteorite hunters said they’d identified bacteria from Mars in a meteorite they’d discovered in Antarctica.

Unfortunately, their claims were subsequently rejected by the wider scientific community, but not before President Clinton had suggested that the find was “one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.”

Or not.

We end our exploration of presidential bacteria with, once again, the outgoing president who, just last year, announced the National Microbiome Initiative, that is now fostering the integrated study of microbiomes across all manner of different ecosystems, and which we at uBiome are of course happy to support with our Microbiome Impact Grants.

As for bacterial connections with our latest president, well, we’ll simply have to wait.


Further reading

2001 Anthrax Attacks

American Presidents and Infectious Diseases

Announcing the National Microbiome Initiative

Could X-rays Have Saved President William McKinley?

Death in the White House: President William Henry Harrison’s Atypical Pneumonia.

Did A “Field of Human Excrement” By The White House Kill A President?

Executive Order – Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

How the White House might have killed these three presidents in the 1840s

National Microbiome Initiative Fact Sheet

President Clinton Statement Regarding Mars Meteorite Discovery

The Medical Context of Calvin Jr.’s Untimely Death

What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?

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