We use all types of records in our research to find out about the deaths of our ancestors. Modern death certificates usually include a cause of death. Obituaries can also shed light on how an ancestor died. Usually we just accept this as fact, but what happens if a mistake was made?
We all learned in history class about the many distinctions of President William Henry Harrison. He gave the longest inaugural address in history, 8,445 words. He held office for the shortest period of time, just one month. He was the first president to die in office, on April 4, 1841. And we all remember the story. He presented that longest inaugural address in freezing cold, wet weather with no coat, hat, or gloves, which gave him pneumonia.
Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., has taken a new look at the Harrison’s death. He has examined the evidence about Harrison’s death in light of modern knowledge about public health and disease. And what he discovered was quite interesting.
First, remember that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp. Not too far from the White House was a marsh formed by an outflow of sewage. The water supply for the building was only a few blocks from sewage. Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, was followed into the presidency by James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, both of whom reported developing gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor actually died from the stomach illness.
Early-nineteenth century medical care was still sub-par in many ways. While the President’s doctor did not bleed him, he did give him opium among other medications. One of Opium’s side effects is to prohibit the body’s ability to eliminate microbes from the system, and actually makes it easier for them to get into the blood.
On his deathbed, physicians reported that Harrison’s pulse was dropping, and his extremities were cold and turning blue. Mackowiak explains that these are traditional symptoms of sepsis – an infection of the bloodstream. Given all the evidence, he explains that Harrison’s death was likely due to enteric fever. Pneumonia was only a secondary issue.
Harrison’s story is one of those included in a book by Mackowiak: Diagnoising Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World. You can also read more details about Harrison’s story in a piece he co-authored for the New York Times: What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?
This story is a great warning to us as genealogists. Just because you find a cause of death on a death certificate, it may not necessarily be true. A little more digging might reveal more details that shed light on what really happened.