Health and Social Life

After Back Surgery in 1954

While President Kennedy campaigned as if he was in the perfect health that was very far from the truth. He suffered from Addison’s disease, which forced him to take cortisone constantly. His back problems were getting more severe all the time. He was constantly in pain and at times could hardly walk. All of this was kept secret at the time. The other aspect of the Kennedy presidency that the public did not learn about was his social escapades. There can be little doubt that Kennedy had many encounters outside of his marriage.


John F. Kennedy suffered from health problems throughout his life. As a child, John seemed to have more than the average number of colds and childhood ailments. Once he became a teenager, his health problems became considerably more pronounced. At the age of 13, during his year at Canterbury Academy, John was tired much of the time. He did not grow as much as was expected for a boy his age. In the spring, John collapsed from stomach pains. He was then diagnosed and treated for appendicitis.

At Choate the next year, John's health was slightly improved, though he still suffered periods of fatigue. John remained generally frail, weighing a mere 117 lbs. In his second year at Choate, his health seemed to get worse as he suffered from various illnesses. In his third year, John was rushed to the hospital. At one point, doctors feared that Kennedy had leukemia. Though that diagnosis was found to be incorrect, doctors were not able to pinpoint the cause of his ailments.

His frail health followed him to college. When John withdrew from Princeton, he spent almost two months in hospitals as doctors tried to get a handle on his mysterious medical problems. His father enlisted the services of some of the most eminent physicians in the US, both at the Mayo Clinic and at Harvard, but none could agree on what was the root cause of John's medical problems.

In 1940, Kennedy began to experience serious back problems. His chronic back pain may have been a byproduct of treatments for his other medical conditions. Ongoing back pain would plague JFK for the remainder of his life.

Jack's health problems precluded him from passing his physical exam for induction into the military. With a war approaching and despite his poor health, Jack insisted that he wanted to serve. Through his father's connections, Jack arranged for the Navy €˜to look the other way€™ and induct him nevertheless. During his naval service, Jack continued to suffer from various medical maladies. After the ordeal of the sinking of his PT boat and the rescue of Kennedy and his crew, Kennedy's health seemed to worsen.

By that time most of those serving in the Pacific were suffering from many different ailments. Jack's illnesses, however, were often noticeably worse than the illnesses of others. Finally, when he collapsed with excruciating stomach pain, Kennedy was hospitalized and diagnosed with a gastric ulcer, which proved to be his ticket out of the Pacific theater and back to the States.

Once at home, Jack was diagnosed with a series of several conditions, including malaria. His doctors suggested he undergo back surgery. Kennedy initially resisted the surgery, but ultimately agreed. He was admitted to New England Baptist with a diagnosis of a ruptured disk. The next day, when surgeons operated they did not find a ruptured disk. They found abnormally soft cartilage, which they removed. Jack slowly recovered from the back surgery, after a protracted and difficult period of convalescence. He continued, however, to suffer from abdominal pain. On March 1, 1945 Jack was retired from the Navy. Finally, in September 1947, Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's disease. It was unclear whether the disease was precipitated by the hormone therapy he had been taking since his youth, or whether the disease had an hereditary component. The diagnosis, however, could not have been timelier since doctors had, by then, developed successful cortisone replacement therapy.

Jack's back problems became worse. Doctors recommended a complicated and dangerous operation to alleviate his suffering. They believed if JFK did agree to the surgery, he would eventually be crippled. The operation was deemed to have only a 50/50 likelihood of success. On October 10, 1953 Senator Kennedy entered New York's Hospital for Special Surgery to undergo the procedure. Over the next few months, Kennedy underwent two operations. At one point, an infection left him hovering near death. By June, however, he was well enough to return to the Senate. Kennedy was concerned that widespread knowledge of his health problems would hurt his political career. That seemed not to be the case as his courage in facing his health problems only increased Kennedy's popularity.

But what the public did not know was that between the continued treatment for his Addison's disease and ongoing treatment for his painful back, Kennedy was taking a powerful cocktail of different medications during his first year in office. In the fall of 1961, the official White House physician, Admiral George Buckley, was greatly concerned about the large number of drugs the President was taking as well as their apparently diminishing effectiveness. After obtaining outside advice, Buckley convinced Kennedy that his current path was untenable. Buckley recommended that Kennedy engage in a vigorous routine of exercise, in place of drugs. Kennedy accepted Buckley's recommendations. In the fall of 1961, he began to exercise three or four time a week. The exercise proved successful and the President's health began to improve. Much has been written about President Kennedy's extra marital affairs. He governed in a different time in our country. During that time, the public and the media held the belief that what people did in their personal lives was not for public consumption. Therefore, reporters did not write what they might have known. They did not spend time investigating the facts regarding the private lives of politicians. The rumors about JFK are legendary. They include a rumor that the President had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. I chose not to write more than I am writing here on this matter, which is very little.  Having gone through the President's schedule day-by-day, there is no doubt that the opportunity existed for Kennedy to engage in extra curricular activity. However, the actual proof of any impropriety is limited, and ultimately irrelevant. Whatever President Kennedy did, or did not do outside the confines of his marriage, there is no evidence whatsoever that anything he might have done impacted the work he did has President.