The death of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, was believed to have been caused by pneumonia. But a new study casts doubt on that theory and offers a different cause.
Harrison, who was in office for one month before dying on April 4, 1841, is now believed to have succumbed to typhoid fever. The original story was that he got pneumonia after delivering the longest Inaugural Address in history (8,445 words) without wearing a coat, hat, or gloves in wet and cold weather.
In a study reported by the New York Times
, the 68-year-old Harrison most likely contracted the disease by consuming water contaminated with sewage. The White House water supply was located a few blocks northeast of the famous home, while a marsh formed by raw sewage was another seven blocks north.
The water supply was downstream, writes Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak in the Times story, so it could easily become contaminated. In fact, two other presidents — James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor — had severe cases of gastroenteritis while in office. Polk recovered but Taylor died a month later of what is believed to be cholera.
Harrison's history of indigestion meant he was more susceptible to infection in his digestive system.
Harrison called for a doctor on March 26 after he felt fatigued. Thomas Miller reportedly examined Harrison and provided him with medicine, including opium. That drug limits the body's ability to get rid of pathogens in the intestines, according to the Times.
Miller also provided Harrison with enemas, which can ultimately allow the typhoid fever pathogens a gateway into the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, causing septic shock.
Harrison had a weak pulse and his extremities were cold and blue as he died, common symptoms of septic shock. McHugh and Mackowiak conclude that Harrison most likely died of enteric fever — another name for typhoid fever.
Miller's original diagnosis of pneumonia never seemed to stick. Even to the doctor himself.
"The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack," Miller wrote.
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