New Clues Shed Light on What Killed President William Henry Harrison

Image: New Clues Shed Light on What Killed President William Henry Harrison

Tuesday, 01 Apr 2014 09:21 AM

By Elliot Jager

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President William Henry Harrison, who died on April 4, 1841, less than a month after being sworn in, may not have succumbed to pneumonia, as is generally believed, but to a gastrointestinal infection caused by bacteria in his drinking water, The New York Times reported.

Harrison took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, and has gone down in history, not only for delivering the longest inaugural address, but for the shortest presidency. Many assumed he caught a cold from standing for so long without a hat, coat or gloves in wet, freezing weather, according to the Times.

Even his doctor, Thomas Miller, suspected that his was not a "pure" case of pneumonia.
Now, modern epidemiologists suspect that the proximity of the White House water supply to a depository for "night soil" or human excrement may have exposed Harrison — who was known to suffer from stomach troubles — to deadly bacteria.

Washington had no sewer system at the time.

In fact, two other pre-Civil War presidents, James Polk and Zachary Taylor, also developed gastroenteritis while in office.

Harrison called for Miller on March 26 complaining of fatigue, according to the Times. Because of his stomach troubles, he was particularly at risk of infection from gastrointestinal pathogens.

The standard medical treatment of the day only made Harrison's condition worse. He was treated with carbonated alkali and opium, which had the unintended effect of making it easier for harmful bacteria to invade his gut unimpeded. He was given enemas which likely contributed to septic shock.

This week marks the 173rd anniversary of his death.

He was succeeded by John Tyler, the first vice president to replace an incumbent who had died in office.

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