Doc Sawyer: President Harding’s Surgeon General

President and Mrs. Harding came to the White House with serious medical problems.

It is  unfair to compare medical practice of a hundred or more years ago with the enormous technological changes that have occurred. Nevertheless…

Charles Sawyer: Homeopath

Doctor Charles E. Sawyer, was both doctor and close family friend to the Hardings.

Charles E. Sawyer (1860-1924) was an Ohio homeopathic doctor of limited formal training, believing in medicines and diet rather than dedicated diagnostic skills and treatment.  Still, by the turn of the twentieth century, he had built a popular sanitarium, enjoyed a strong following, serious medical credentials (for the time) and was a respected member of society.  Having known the Harding family for many years, “Doc” Sawyer became family doctor to Warren Harding, and  treated him for a variety of common ailments, including gastritis.

Doc Sawyer had a thriving sanitorium in Marion, Ohio.

Florence Harding became his patient as well. Florence was a seriously sick woman with a chronic and frequently life threatening kidney ailment that caused regular blockage, pain and fever. It would be a serious condition today, but treatable with modern medicines and techniques.

Doc Sawyer was certainly competent to recognize the gravity of her problem, but believed her kidney would “unblock” itself, given time. But while waiting for that time, “Duchess” as Mrs. H. was nicknamed, was a very sick woman, bedridden, and believed near death on several occasions. In 1900, one of her kidneys was removed.

Doc Sawyer Comes to Washington

Warren Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, the first year that a new Constitutional Amendment allowed the direct election of Senators. The Hardings came to Washington with high hopes of a new chapter in their not-blissful lives. Their marriage had become somewhat of an armed truce. Five years older than her husband, the Duchess was a domineering woman, and her kidney disease precluded “marital duties.” Harding, an affable and handsome fellow, found entertainment elsewhere.

Warren G. Harding was considered the handsomest President up to his time.

Senator Warren Harding’s congeniality drew him into the “good old boys” club: men who liked cigars, whiskey, poker – and women. He was a happy man.

Not so Mrs. Harding. She was considered old, dowdy, and generally snubbed with few friends. To add to her unhappiness, she had another bout with her remaining kidney. Her death was once again expected.

Florence Harding, nicknamed “Duchess,” had a long history of kidney problems.

Doc Sawyer, now a close family friend, immediately rushed to Washington. He moved in with the Hardings, and slowly nursed Florence back to health. She firmly believed she could not live without Doc Sawyer’s devoted medical care.

Doc Sawyer Gets a Promotion

Nobody would have predicted that Warren G. Harding, mediocre newspaperman-turned-mediocre Senator would become President of the United States. Nobody, except “Madame Marcia,” a Washington fortune-teller whose patrons included half of socio-political Washington including a superstitious Florence Harding. Madame Marcia advised her that Harding would become President, but would not survive his term. Florence believed her. If she was troubled that her husband would die, it is unknown. She had always loved politics, and this was the culmination of all her hopes and dreams – and an opportunity to avenge those who had snubbed her for years.

Brigadier General “Doc” Sawyer, made Surgeon General, loved wearing his military uniform.

Harding indeed became President in 1921, and Mrs. Harding insisted that Doc Sawyer be made Surgeon General, thus in constant attendance. Harding offered no arguments. In addition to naming Sawyer to the post, Harding inducted the sixty-year-old into the U.S. Army, commissioning him as a Brigadier General. Doc was overjoyed! He immediately ordered custom-made uniforms, and loved wearing them all over Washington.

It goes without saying that his medical peers were not impressed with Sawyer’s uniforms or his new title. They were even less impressed by his medical credentials. They considered him little more than a charlatan.

But the Duchess could not live without him.

The POTUS Becomes Sick.

As First Lady, Florence Harding indeed had another bout with her failing kidney, and sure enough Doc Sawyer pulled her through again. But it was Warren Harding who required serious medical care.

In some ways, Harding’s lifestyle was catching up with him. So was his “unfitness for the office,” as he admitted. He knew he was not qualified to be President, and the only part of the job that he truly enjoyed, was the meet-and-greet ceremonials, which he had always done extremely well. Now in his late fifties, Harding had put on weight, via a fashionable “high-stomached” paunch. He also had emotional turmoil via his presidential worries, his marital worries, his extra-marital worries, his financial worries, and growing worries about less than honest old pals that he had appointed to high office. He also had a bad heart.

Doc Sawyer, family doctor and close friend, knew about all Harding’s worries, but categorically denied the bad heart.

Despite Harding’s difficulty breathing, chronic chest pains, cold sweats and other common symptoms of heart disease, the Surgeon General insisted the President was merely suffering from indigestion: too much rich food, too little sleep, and too much stress and worry. Rich food, lack of sleep and stress and worry were certainly not helping, but other Washington physicians insisted that the President was showing classic cardiovascular symptoms. Harding believed his old friend. Indigestion.

The Death of Harding, Sawyer and The Duchess

Surgeon General Sawyer accompanied the President and his party on their fateful trip to Alaska in 1923. Harding was clearly not well. When symptoms suggested a heart attack, Sawyer claimed food poisoning from bad crabmeat. Within a week, the President was dead. Rumors abounded, especially when Mrs. Harding forbade an autopsy. But the Washington doctors were correct. It was a heart attack.

The death of Warren Harding was a complete surprise to the country.

New President Calvin Coolidge did not choose to continue Doc Sawyer’s appointment as Surgeon General. The aging homeopath returned to Ohio, and died a few months later.

Florence Harding also returned to Ohio. Shortly after Doc died, she had another bout of nephritis, and died. She was sixty-four. Doc Sawyer wasn’t there to keep her alive any more.

Sources:

Ferrell, Robt. H. – The Strange Deaths of President Harding – University of Missouri Press, 1996

Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove – McGraw Hill – 1968

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/warrenharding

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=30

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to Doc Sawyer: President Harding’s Surgeon General

  1. energywriter says:

    Another cogent discussion of our presidential history. Excellent work, Feather.

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