The Abysmal Health of Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson

If his health history had been known in 1912, Woodrow Wilson might never have been nominated.

The White House Physician: Cary T. Grayson

Shortly after President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office in 1913, there was a luncheon for him and his guests at the White House. During the festivities, one of his relatives slipped and cut her forehead. Navy Doctor Cary T. Grayson was on hand, and gently and capably tended to the woman. The new President was impressed, and invited Dr. Grayson to become his personal physician.

Dr. Cary T. Grayson, President Wilson’s personal physician.

Within days, Dr. Grayson scheduled Wilson for a complete physical examination. Naturally, his comprehensive health history was discussed, and to his astonishment, Dr. Grayson discovered that the fifty-six year old President’s health was far from robust.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the oldest son in a family of four. His father, Joseph R. Wilson was a prominent Presbyterian minister and professor. It became apparent soon enough that young Tommy (as he was called until college age) was obviously bright, but had difficulty learning to read and write. Childhood dyslexia was an unnamed condition at that time. What Wilson told Dr. Grayson about that “situation” is unknown, although he was known to claim that he had childhood asthma. He was therefore home schooled until he reached puberty, and the reading disability sorted itself out for the most part.

Wilson also had a high strung nature, susceptible to any number of physical ailments usually considered psychosomatic, caused by stress, frustration and various then-undiagnosed psychological situations. Nevertheless his adoring family was happy to support him and believe in his “destiny” for greatness.

A Young Man with Problems

Psychosomatic ailment is not an uncommon phenomena for people (children or adult) who are unhappy with parts of their lives. The body absorbs the stress and strain, and it results in real, and sometimes serious physical issues. Headaches and stomach problems are most common.

Those physical manifestation of Wilson’s young manhood did not prevent him from enjoying fine scholastic accomplishments and a promising professorial career, but he did not become financially independent until he was twenty-eight – shortly before he married Ellen Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, both deceased.

The Wilson family

Woodrow Wilson and his adoring family.

He adored his bride, but from the beginning, he inherited a ready-made family. Ellen’s ten-year-old brother lived with them. Another college-aged brother spent vacations with them. The three Wilson daughters were born within the first five years of their marriage. Then there was a revolving door of Axson, Woodrow and Wilson long-term house guests.

Despite being fast-tracked and well-regarded professionally, Wilson was under enormous financial strain, since professors do not earn large salaries. In addition to his regular duties, he took on additional symposiums and seminars. And he began turning out a book a year to supplement his income.

Wilson: The Undiagnosed Strokes

In 1896, Woodrow Wilson was forty and a professor at Princeton University when he had his first stroke, losing the use of his right hand for several months. Modern doctors suspect he had an embolus in the carotid artery, but it was downplayed by the doctors at the time. As a mind-over-matter remedy, he taught himself to write with his left hand, and became an ardent user of the typewriter.

Wilson’s brother-in-law Stockton Axson believed the stroke had also caused a noticeable change in Wilson’s personality: more driven and less inclined toward recreation.

Some years later, more stress and anxieties caused a second stroke, again un- or mis-diagnosed. This time he lost the use of his right hand for nearly two years. While Wilson frequently complained of various ailments, he denied the strokes as anything more than overwork or “writer’s cramp.”

Two years later, he had another serious stroke, leaving him with permanent diminished vision in one eye. The doctors prescribed rest. For his chronic digestive problems, they suggested he use a stomach pump periodically.

These incidents were combined with seriously high blood pressure along with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which was considered incurable.

Dr. Grayson’s Problems

President Wilson and Dr. Grayson became close personal friends.

It is easy to write Cary Grayson off as a barely-competent physician, especially when “judging” medical competency against modern technological advances of the past century. But Dr. Grayson was seriously concerned by Wilson’s abysmal history, and even more abysmal methods of non- or poor-at-best treatment.

He immediately discontinued his horrifying use of the stomach pump, and placed the President on a blander diet. Fresh air, rest and sufficient relaxation was also included in his daily regimen. Wilson began to feel better. The high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis however, remained problematic and, at that time, untreatable.

Later in 1913, Wilson suffered another small stroke, this time affecting his left hand and arm. To modern physicians, it is an ominous sign, suggesting bilateral involvement that substantially increased his chances for additional strokes, and the possibility that insufficient blood to the brain could cause serious personality and/or mental acuity changes. Dr. Grayson recognized the need to tread lightly since the condition was a vicious cycle: stress, thwarting, upsetting or otherwise agitating Wilson ran a high risk of causing a potential disaster.

As usual, Wilson denied the seriousness of those incidents.

By the time First Lady Ellen Wilson became mortally ill in early 1914, Dr. Grayson had developed an important and close personal friendship with the President. Both Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson “conspired” to withhold the seriousness of her condition from the President. They were both convinced it could unsettle him enough to impede his presidency, if not worse.

Five years later, in 1919, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Dr. Grayson refused to sign any document of disability that could compromise his fitness for office. He unequivocally believed it would kill the President, his closest friend.


Saunders, Frances Wright – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina Press – 1985

Weinstein, Edwin A. – Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography – Princeton University Press, 1981


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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1 Response to The Abysmal Health of Woodrow Wilson

  1. Sean Munger says:

    This is a great encapsulation of Wilson’s numerous and very serious health problems. Modern historians are just beginning to understand the depth of Wilson’s issues, and how they may have affected world history. The stroke and cardiac problems that Wilson had especially during and after World War I were, I think, key to understanding his failures in getting the United States to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. His stroke in September 1919 hardened the veins in his brain and literally precluded him from accepting any other viewpoints about the treaty besides his own. He famously said, “I agree to nothing. The Senate must take its medicine.” If the Senate had not rejected the Treaty of Versailles twice, in 1919 and 1920, would the world order have broken down as it did between the world wars? Would we have had Mussolini and Hitler, or would the European democracies have been better equipped to tamp them down? These are themes I deal with in my own classes on this period. Prime example of how medical history really does affect the world.

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