The epilepsy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Steven Lomazow, MDIn the 4 years since beginning research for a book on the health
of our 32nd president, the diagnosis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s seizures evolved from a suspicion to a virtual certainty. Even more importantly, itis clear that they had a major impact upon his mental acuity and decision-making during one of the mostcritical periods in American history.There are dozens of independent reports of behavior consistent with complex partial seizures that occurred with considerable frequency for over a year prior to his death from a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs,GA, on April 12, 1945, none of which were recognized as such by the observers. The true nature of Roos-evelt’s neurologic illness has been one of the most closely held secrets of the 20th century, abetted by the activeparticipation in a cover-up by his 2 most well-recognized physicians, ENT specialist Ross T. McIntire andcardiologist Howard G. Bruenn. It is ludicrous to assume that symptomatology so gross and so frequent wentunrecognized by those entrusted with the health of the most important and powerful man in the world. Thepieces of the puzzle are scattered in dozens of books, articles, oral histories, and a limited amount of survivingmedical records.In the last year of Roosevelt’s life, the long list of observers who were aghast at his appearance, demeanor, andloss of mental acuity include Winston Churchill, Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, and Generals DouglasMacArthur and Albert C. Wedemeyer, yet a number of others are particularly graphic and convincing.In July 1944, prior to his nomination for an unprecedented fourth term, Turner Catledge, then a reporterand soon to be editor of
The New York Times
, met with FDR:
When I entered the president’s office … he was sitting there with a vague glassy-eyed expression on his face and hismouth hanging open. He would start talking about something, then in midsentence he would stop and his mouth would drop open and he’d sit staring at me in silence … Repeatedly he would lose his train of thought, stop, andstare blankly at me. It was an agonizing experience for me. Finally a waiter brought his lunch, and (Chief of Staff,General Edwin “Pa”) Watson said his luncheon guest was waiting, and I was able to make my escape.
Watson was Roosevelt’s chief of staff and close confidante since the earliest days of the New Deal, havingbeen brought into Roosevelt’s inner circle (as was Presidential physician McIntire) by Dr. Cary T. Grayson,the orchestrator of the medical cover-up of Woodrow Wilson’s devastating 1919 stroke.In January 1945, Senator Frank Maloney of Connecticut, a long-time acquaintance of the President, met with him over lunch.
Roosevelt looked up but said nothing, his eyes fixed in a strange stare. After a few moments of silence, Maloney realized that Roosevelt had absolutely no idea who his visitor was. A pious Catholic, Maloney crossed himself andran to get Pa Watson, fearing the president had suffered a stroke. “Don’t worry.” Watson said. “He’ll come out of it.He always does.” By the time Maloney returned to the oval office, Roosevelt had pulled himself together. Smilingbroadly, he greeted Maloney warmly and launched into a spirited conversation.
Watson’s dismissive response to the event is strong testimony to both the frequency and the familiarity with which FDR’s intimate associates dealt with the problem.Frances Perkins, America’s first female cabinet member, gave the best description:
The change in appearance had to do with the oncoming of a kind of glassy eye, and an extremely drawn look aroundthe eyes and cheeks, and even a sort of dropping of the muscles of the jaw and mouth, as though they weren’t working exactly. I think they were, but there was a great weakness in those muscles. Also, if you saw him close to, you would see that his hands were weak … When he fainted, as he did occasionally—not for many years, but for severalyears—that was all accentuated. It would be momentary. It would be very brief, and he’d be back again.
A January 5, 1948, memo from a Chicago Tribune reporter, Orville “Doc” Dwyer, to his colleague, Walter Trohan, best illustrates the historical importance and also reliably reports that Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna, who served as his hostess and aide for the last year of his life, was well aware of the problem, though she
From the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, West Orange, NJ.
Author disclosures are provided at the end of the article. Address correspondence andreprint requests to Dr. StevenLomazow, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, 8 McGuirk Lane, WestOrange, NJ 07052Lomazow@comcast.net
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