We nearly lost our first president to the flu. The country could have died, too.
By GILLIAN BROCKELL | The Washington Post | Published: October 3, 2020
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George Washington was a strapping man – taller than his peers, an athletic rider and a fantastic dancer.
But his immune system was weak. Throughout his life, he was regularly struck with illnesses and brought to the brink of death. And one of those severe illnesses – a bout of the flu in May 1790 – nearly threw the country into chaos.
On Friday, 230 years later, the country was reeling again after President Donald Trump announced he and first lady Melania Trump had contracted the novel coronavirus. The 74-year-old commander in chief, who'd spent months downplaying the pandemic and ignoring the advice of his own scientists to wear masks and socially distance, was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be treated for covid-19.
In 1790, Washington had served as the nation's first president for just two years, and the temporary capital was in New York. The city was already crowded, by colonial standards, and its streets were positively septic.
The influenza epidemic was first observed in September 1789 in New York. Noah Webster, of future dictionary fame, kept a detailed journal of epidemics in the young nation (and of comets, tornadoes and earthquakes, which he thought were related to illness).
"Dr. [Benjamin] Rush informs me, that it was brought to Philadelphia by the members of Congress," he wrote. From there "It overspread America, from the 15th to the 45th degree of latitude in about 6 or 8 weeks."
The president didn't catch the flu the first time it came around. But after a mild winter, there was a second wave in late spring 1790. James Madison, then a member of Congress and an adviser to Washington, caught it. On April 27, Washington "imprudently" asked Madison to stop by his residence anyway, Ron Chernow wrote in his biography "Washington: A Life."
"Indisposed with a bad cold and at home all day writing letters on private business," Washington wrote in a journal on May 9. Soon he was bedridden, suffering from "labored breathing, sharp pains in his side, harsh coughing, and blood in his spittle," Chernow wrote.
Then, it worsened into pneumonia. First lady Martha Washington stayed by his side constantly. The city's best doctors were brought in to consult. Then they called in from Philadelphia the personal physician of Benjamin Franklin; Franklin had just died of an infection of the lungs.
They sneaked the doctor into Washington's residence so as not to alert – and perhaps panic – the public. But rumors swirled anyway when the street around the residence was closed and hay laid down to muffle sound and try to help the president rest.
On May 15, Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in his journal: "Called to see the president. Every eye full of tears. His life despaired of."
Had he died then, the United States might have died with him. The new Constitution lacked detailed instructions on how to treat presidential incapacitation and death. (This was remedied in the 20th century by the 25th Amendment).
Washington's personal secretary basically ran the government for a few weeks. Vice President John Adams, a brilliant but polarizing figure, "would never been the unifying figure needed to launch the constitutional experiment," Chernow wrote. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton acted like a "de facto head of state," while simultaneously accusing Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of positioning himself to assume the presidency.
But on May 16, Washington took a turn for the better. Within days, his fever had faded, and he sat up in bed. "Still, Washington remained in a weakened state, so drained of energy that he did not resume his diary until June 24," Chernow wrote.
Despite his weak immune system, he lived longer than both his father and his beloved half brother, Lawrence, who both died young of infectious diseases. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in a 1784 letter, "Tho' I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a short lived family."
Washington was less than two years into his retirement when, just like his father had more than 50 years earlier, he rode his horse in the rain, caught a fast-moving illness and died in December 1799. He was 67.