April 21, 2008 in Nation/World

Physician examines dead presidents’ health

Lisa M. Krieger San Jose Mercury News
 

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Did John Wilkes Booth shoot a dying man?

That’s the controversial conclusion reached by physician and amateur historian John Sotos, who says that President Abraham Lincoln was suffering from a lethal genetic cancer syndrome when he was shot at Ford’s Theatre 143 years ago.

“Lincoln was a rare man with a rare disease,” said Sotos. He has self-published a 300-page book and 400-page database to support his conclusion, based on an exhaustive analysis of Lincoln photographs and eyewitness descriptions of the president’s health. “This solves a puzzle.”

While most Americans only reflect on dead presidents during long weekends in February, Sotos and other physician historians pore over ancient accounts of long-gone symptoms, studying aches and pains as if the patient had stepped out of the grave into the clinic.

These hobbyists have crafted a collection of retrospective diagnoses: George Washington may have suffered dementia during his last years in office; James Madison suffered seizures; Calvin Coolidge grew depressed after the death of his son; after a lifetime of heavy drinking, Franklin Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Lincoln’s health has fascinated medical sleuths. In 1962, it was suggested that his great height and long limbs were linked to a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome. Others have proposed alternate ailments – Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, perhaps, or Stickler syndrome. Some say he suffered from depression or exhaustion.

The late president’s health had long puzzled Sotos.

Last year, while assembling a medical database on the 16th president, Sotos read an unrelated article about thyroid cancer, the deadly and inevitable outcome of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B, or MEN 2B.

Many symptoms matched Lincoln’s, and at 3:15 a.m. Sotos made a link. The condition explains Lincoln’s lanky build, chronic constipation, hooded eyes, asymmetric jaw and lumps on his lips, he said. His health was weakening in the months prior to the assassination, Sotos asserts.

If true, Lincoln’s death could have been messy and lingering, Sotos speculates, not sudden and shocking. For a nation in post-war turmoil, “it would have been a much different ending.”

The medical community is divided on the theory.

“Sotos has presented a very compelling case,” said Dr. Charis Eng, director of the Genomic Medicine Institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “It is fascinating. But the jury is still out.”

More skeptical is Dr. Jeffrey F. Moley, an expert in the disease at Washington University in St. Louis. “I strongly doubt that Lincoln had MEN 2B. I have seen a hundred patients with MEN 2B and I see none of the characteristic features. It’s very, very unlikely.”

This isn’t the first president Sotos has diagnosed, living or dead.

He’s compiled meticulous medical histories on all 43 U.S. presidents – as well as Vice President Dick Cheney (“a vasculopath with an almost 30-year history of coronary atherosclerosis.”) He diagnosed severe sleep apnea in William Taft and graphed the president’s weight gains and losses.

Only a DNA sample would prove whether Lincoln might have soon died a natural death had Booth lost his nerve. That sample won’t come from Lincoln; he’s buried in concrete. It won’t come from his living descendants; there are none. Only a sample of blood from a saved swath of soiled fabric might be definitive.

Until then, history offers the best clues.

“Physicians have an obligation to investigate everything that may shed light on their patient’s health,” said Sotos.

“I have simply approached Lincoln as if he were my patient.”

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