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HOME > EXHIBITS > When the President is the Patient > Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Dying President

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)
The Dying President

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, was elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940. It was during the end of this term that FDR's health began to decline. The strain of leading the country through World War II had begun to take its toll. Exhausted from a summit in Teheran with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the end of 1943, FDR's health began to deteriorate rapidly after his return. Months passed and the President did not bounce back. He lost weight, his face thinned, and he suffered shortness of breath. At first, FDR's personal physician, Vice Admiral Ross T. McIntire diagnosed the President's problem as the "flu" and bronchitis.

Not satisfied with the diagnosis, FDR's family wanted a second opinion. Dr. McIntire arranged to have the President examined at Bethesda naval Hospital in March 1944 by Dr. Howard G. Bruenn. Dr. Bruenn, a cardiologist, found that FDR was suffering from hypertension, heart disease, left ventricular cardiac failure, and bronchitis. He recommended that FDR be given digitalis, put on a diet, and have bed rest. No one told the President of his serious condition, and he never asked.

FDR decided to run for a fourth term in 1944. No one made a serious attempt to persuade the President not to run or inform him of his health problems. While those who saw the President were shocked at his appearance, FDR's spokesmen assured them that there was nothing to be concerned about. Less than a month before the election, Dr. McIntire claimed that FDR's health was "perfectly OK." FDR was re-elected in 1944, and soon thereafter attended a summit in Yalta with Churchill and Stalin. It was a strenuous trip for the ailing FDR, but he appeared to be alert.

Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park in a Wheelchair

This is one of only two known photographs of FDR in a wheelchair. FDR contracted polio in 1921. Few Americans were ever aware of FDR's disability. This was due in large part to the cooperation of members of the press, who almost always photographed him from the waist up. FDR insisted on this policy when he re-entered politics after his bout with polio, and it was continued during his presidency.

When he ran for a fourth term in 1944, FDR chose Senator Harry Truman of Missouri as his Vice President. Their lunch gave the two men a chance to meet and discuss the presidential campaign. Truman was deeply concerned about FDR's unhealthy appearance.

Campaign Poster for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman

American voters were not aware of the seriousness of FDR's medical condition when he ran for a fourth term.

To dispel rumors concerning the President's health, FDR's advisors sent him out on the campaign trail.

FDR's blood pressure during 1944 reached dangerously high levels. In the wake of the President's examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital in March of that year, FDR's blood pressure was monitored closely. This chart shows that his blood pressure remained very high for the month of April 1944.

 

One of Dr. Bruenn's 1944 recommendations for FDR's health was bed rest. Here we see that FDR was supposed to take brief naps during the day and get 10 hours of sleep each night. When Dr. Bruenn recommended this regimen FDR's physician, Dr. McIntire, replied "You can't do that. He's the President of the United States."

As the result of polio, FDR could neither stand nor walk without leg braces. When he did walk, FDR had to be supported by another person, usually one of his sons. When he reported to Congress on the Yalta conference on 1 march 1945, FDR made what was perhaps his only public reference to his braces. Apologizing for sitting down during his address, FDR stated that he was carrying around 10 pounds of steel.

Americans did not realize that they had re-elected a dying president. Dr. McIntire was selected as Roosevelt's personal physician at the recommendation of Dr. Cary D. Grayson, who had been President Woodrow Wilson's personal doctor. An eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist, Dr. McIntire appeared to have been chosen because FDR suffered from chronic sinus trouble. Shortly after FDR's death, Dr. McIntire wrote (contrary to fact) that FDR's blood pressure and heart signs had been normal. Dr. McIntire has been accused by historians of destroying FDR's medical records to hide his misdiagnosis and mismanagement of the President's case.

FDR Addresses Congress on His Return from the Yalta Conference

A tired and worn out President informs Congress about the agreements he made with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. The question of whether FDR's health compromised his bargaining power with Stalin has been debated.

 

FDR Working at Warm Springs, GA
March 30 - April 12, 1945

To escape the pressure of Washington, FDR often vacationed at the "Little White House", a cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia. FDR went to the cottage on 29 March 1945 for a brief stay. This picture was taken shortly before his death.

 

FDR at Warm Springs, GA, the Day Before His Death

This was the last photograph taken of FDR. The next day the President, while working at his desk, complained of a "terrific pain" in the back of his head. The pain was a stroke. FDR died at 3:35 p.m.

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