Theodore Roosevelt: Asthmatic

college-age TR

Youthful Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt could arguably be the poster boy for asthmatic children.

Asthma In General: Today

Asthma is a medical condition that affects the lungs and airways, making breathing difficult. It can vary between a mild, occasional and annoying problem, or, for some, it can be life-threatening. Either way, it requires a physician’s care, and can be effectively treated with a variety of medications.

Small children, perhaps because of their immature pulmonary systems, are commonly afflicted with asthma. The good news is that most children outgrow the severe symptoms by puberty. Modern medicines make it possible for children to enjoy a happy and active childhood. There are many Olympic and professional athletes who suffered from severe asthma during their youth.

But even today, asthma never really “goes away” entirely. Symptoms may subside for years at a time, but lifelong vigilance is essential.

Asthma: Circa 1860

Theodore Roosevelt as a small boy.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was an asthmatic child at a time when it was a fearful disease. Few things are as frightening for a parent as watching their young child literally gasping for breath – and being powerless to help.

Mid-nineteenth century doctors were well aware of asthma. The diagnosis was relatively easy; successful treatments and medicines were decades in the future – and even today, can be elusive.

Childhood asthma was a vicious cycle in the nineteenth century: a weakened child was its victim, and the disease further weakened the child. Parents were usually gently told not to expect a long life for their asthmatic offspring.

Theodore Sr. and Theodore Jr.

TR was a frail boy until puberty.

The Roosevelt family of New York City were New York Knickerbockers, a term used to describe some of the (mostly Dutch) settlers who came to New York in the mid-seventeenth century, and thrived.

Theodore Roosevelt Senior (and yes, our TR was Junior!), was a wealthy descendent of a Dutch patroon. He and his equally patrician (albeit Georgian) wife, Martha Bullock, had four children, Theodore Jr. being the second offspring and first son.

From earliest childhood, “Teedie”, as he was called, suffered from asthma, gasping and wheezing for breath. The elder Roosevelts were duly advised that their son would not be likely to reach adulthood.

TR with his brother Elliott, his sister Corinne, and his future wife Edith Carow.

For an asthmatic, sleeping is an enormous problem – even propped up in a sitting position. Theodore’s father carried him in his arms, walking up and down the hallways of their brownstone, trying to quiet the spasms. If the weather was mild, he sometimes ordered his carriage at midnight, hoping that the fresh air and gentle jog would rock his little boy into some comforting sleep.

TR Junior did not respond readily to any of the conventional (and frequently detrimental if not downright peculiar) remedies.


Theodore Roosevelt Senior

One medical treatment called for the patient drinking copious amounts of black coffee, which pumped huge amounts of caffeine into a five year old. TR would become a mega coffee drinker for the rest of his life. And his frenetic energies are legendary.

Another so-called remedy was to have the little boy smoke big black cigars. It is hard to imagine anything worse for an asthmatic than tobacco smoke, but Teedie was encouraged to puff away. As an adult, TR never smoked anything.

As a result, he became a weak and somewhat timid child, sedentary and unable to participate in the rough-and-tumble activities of normal boyhood. His prestigious intellect and curiosity was instead turned toward natural history, and he amassed broad and varied collections of leaves, rocks, insects, birds, small animals, etc. By twelve, he had become a bonafide taxidermist.

And the fact that he was also nearsighted wasn’t helping matters, either.

The Turning Point

Teenaged TR

Vigorous exercise helped TR’s health, and became a part of his strenuous lifestyle.

When TR was about twelve, his father said, “You have the mind, but you haven’t the body. You must make your body.”

Theodore Senior accordingly turned an upstairs room into a gymnasium, with barbells and weights, mats and pulleys and a punching bag. He also engaged an off-duty New York policeman as personal trainer to help his son develop his athletic skills, and most importantly, his muscles and stamina. That it would help his confidence and psyche was a by-product and fringe benefit.

Between natural puberty and a substantial increase in his chest expansion, the severity and frequency of the asthmatic attacks abated.

About the same time, a pair of spectacles corrected the nearsightedness, and clarified his world.

Camping and hunting outings in Maine broadened his horizons in ways no one could have ever predicted. The fresh air did him wondrous good, both physically and mentally, and the great outdoors became a lifelong passion.

By eighteen, Theodore Roosevelt had matured into a vigorous young man that no one would dare call “weakling.”

He walked, he ran, he rowed and rode, he boxed, he hunted, he became a fair marksman, and never seemed to know when to stop.

Theodore Roosevelt about the time he was 26.

The Strenuous Life

Theodore Roosevelt’s father died when TR was still in college, but the effect of the elder man had a lifelong imprint on his son’s life.

TR only lived till sixty, but he packed several lifetimes into those years. He churned through the New York Assembly, became a cowboy in the Dakotas, sired six children, embraced progressive political policies, learned jujitsu and tennis, whipped political Washington into a frenzy of activity and served in sub-cabinet positions and found time to write a bunch of books – all before he was thirty-five. At the same time, he maintained his upper-crust credentials and socialized effortlessly with the creme of society.

Then he became a soldier, made his battle-reputation on San Juan Hill, catapulted into the Governorship of New York, and the White House. Then he became a big game hunter in Africa, and an explorer in the jungles of the Amazon.

The asthma remained reasonably dormant, and flared up only on occasion. But Theodore Roosevelt never stopped to take a breath.


Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster


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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