Previous: 6 Strange Units of Measurement We Still Use
Next: What Happens to Birds During Hurricanes?



View count:363,214
Last sync:2024-06-23 03:15


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "How the White House Killed Two Presidents." YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 29 January 2018,
MLA Inline: (SciShow, 2018)
APA Full: SciShow. (2018, January 29). How the White House Killed Two Presidents [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (SciShow, 2018)
Chicago Full: SciShow, "How the White House Killed Two Presidents.", January 29, 2018, YouTube, 05:10,
Working in the White House in the 1840s may have been more hazardous than we thought.

Hosted by: Hank Green
Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:
Dooblydoo thanks go to the following Patreon supporters: Kelly Landrum Jones, Sam Lutfi, Kevin Knupp, Nicholas Smith, D.A. Noe, alexander wadsworth, سلطا الخليفي, Piya Shedden, KatieMarie Magnone, Scott Satovsky Jr, Bella Nash, Charles Southerland, Bader AlGhamdi, James Harshaw, Patrick Merrithew, Patrick D. Ashmore, Candy, Tim Curwick, charles george, Saul, Mark Terrio-Cameron, Viraansh Bhanushali, Kevin Bealer, Philippe von Bergen, Chris Peters, Justin Lentz
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?

Image Sources:,_April_4_A.D._1841.jpg

If you know anything about William Henry Harrison, it’s probably that he was the shortest-serving. U.

S. President of all time. He lasted just 32 days before getting sick and dying in April of 1841.

The story goes that Harrison gave an extremely long inaugural address -- something like two hours long -- outside, in the cold and wet, without a coat or gloves. That gave him a nasty bout of pneumonia, which he didn’t survive. But a modern look at the case suggests that Harrison wasn’t killed by a foolish mix of verbosity and a failure to bundle up, but by contaminated water in the White House.

And it probably took down a second president, too. This new interpretation of Harrison’s death comes from a paper published in the journal. Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2014.

The authors re-examined the case summary left behind by the ninth President’s doctor,. Thomas Miller. The first clue that pneumonia might not be the right cause of death, especially if it resulted from Harrison’s lengthy speech, is the timing.

Harrison fell ill some three weeks after the address -- which is way longer than you would think if the two were related. Other reports at the time also suggest that the weather wasn’t even all that cold. The second red flag is that Dr.

Miller was called to the White House not because Harrison was having difficulty breathing, but because he was feeling anxious and tired, symptoms the President thought were from the stress of his campaign and the first few weeks in office. He also explained that he had a history of dyspepsia, or indigestion, that had recently flared up. Over the next few days, the President’s primary complaints were a chill and constipation -- which, again, doesn’t really sound like pneumonia.

In fact, the constipation got so bad it’s what doctors today would call obstipation, or really, really severe constipation. Harrison’s side hurt, probably from his very full bowel, and he was also nauseated. Miller did what he could, at least for a 19th century physician, which was to prescribe laxatives, perform enemas, and give laudanum, a form of opium, for the pain.

He also gave quite a bit of quicksilver, or mercury, which of course is toxic, so that wasn’t exactly helping. It was only on day five that Harrison started having trouble breathing and coughing up blood. On day six, Harrison finally pooped, in the form of smelly, watery diarrhea.

And eventually, after a few more days, his pulse slowed, his fingertips were blue, and he died, early in the morning on April 4th. The most interesting thing about Miller’s diagnosis of pneumonia is that he didn’t actually seem super sure of it himself. He wrote that the disease wasn’t considered a case of pure pneumonia, instead the diagnosis “afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.” That’s 1800s-speak for ‘The diagnosis is funky, but the American people need to be told something about how their President died.’ It’s also telling that Miller didn’t treat Harrison with the then-standard of care for pneumonia, which was bleeding.

There, Harrison actually kind of lucked out, since that would have probably killed him faster. So, if not pneumonia, what killed the President? Well, the paper’s authors argue that the symptoms better match enteric fever, which is an umbrella term for typhoid and paratyphoid fevers.

Typhoid and paratyphoid are essentially the same disease — they’re just caused by different strains of Salmonella bacteria, and paratyphoid is usually less severe. In both cases, there’s a fever, and a bunch of non-specific symptoms, like abdominal pain, body aches, headache, fatigue and constipation. The bacteria attack the lining of the gut, which can then break open, and pneumonia is actually a common secondary infection.

This new analysis suggests that this is probably what happened. Miller may have even made the broken bowel more likely by giving the President enemas. Harrison then likely died of the resulting blood infection, or sepsis.

As for how Harrison contracted enteric fever, well, the bacteria are usually spread in water or food that’s contaminated with the feces of someone who’s infected. And back in the 1840s, the White House was getting its water from a spring just 7 blocks away from a dumping ground for human waste. At the time, Washington D.

C. didn’t have a sewage system. Instead, people collected their pee and poop in buckets, and at night workers known as ‘night soil’ men picked it up and deposited it in a field. So it’s not hard to imagine Salmonella bacteria periodically making its way to the spring and spreading the disease.

In fact, several other Presidents of the era, including James Polk and Zachary Taylor, developed gastrointestinal diseases similar to Harrison’s that were probably also enteric fever. Taylor died in 1850, just over a year into the job. Polk survived, but was sickly from it, and likely died from cholera just after leaving the White House.

In following years, Washington and other major U-S cities put in sewer systems to deal with human waste in a sanitary way. But for a while, the White House was one of the most dangerous and deadly places in D. C.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you’d like to learn even more about science and history — and presidents — you can watch one of my favorite episodes of SciShow of all time, our episode on how 18th-century medicine killed George Washington. [♪♩OUTRO].