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That president has some stones: Local museum exhibit features history of presidential health

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

At 78, on January 20, U.S. President Joseph Biden, was the oldest American president to ever have been inaugurated . Everything went as planned, but a Linthicum organization is providing an online exhibit which documents occasions when the person in the White House hasn't felt so healthy.

A president's health can affect the operation of the entire nation and impact political events around the world. When the President of the United States gets sick, headlines are written and the world pays attention. Presidents receive the finest health care available when ill or injured, but sometimes it's not enough.

The William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History of the American Urological Association (AUA), located in Linthicum, MD, put together a retrospective exhibit called Chief Complaints: Health of the American President. It outlines the medical ailments and the recommended treatments of U.S. Presidents throughout history – many of which were urological--such as:

  • Thomas Jefferson, our nation's third president, suffered from headaches and gastrointestinal problems thought to be cured with a cold bath and going to bed early. He also was diagnosed with an enlarged prostate and was taught to self-catheterize to alleviate his symptoms.

William Henry Harrison, the nation's ninth president and first president to die in office, contracted a cold during his inauguration ceremony which developed into pneumonia. Among the many failed treatments were: camphor, brandy, crude petroleum and leeches. He served only 32 days in office.

  • James Polk, the 11th US president suffered from painful bladder stones starting at the age of 17. He eventually had a procedure to remove the stones called a lithotomy. The operation was performed while he was awake with brandy given as the only sedative. While successful in removing the stones, the operation is thought to have rendered him sterile.

  • In the 1960's, Ronald Regan was diagnosed with prostate stones after a series of urinary tract infections. In 1987, he also underwent surgery to alleviate an enlarged prostate. No cancer was found.

"As we look at selected stories of American presidents' illnesses, we see significant changes in medical practices throughout our nation's history ranging from the invention of improved diagnostic tools to the discovery of antibiotics," says Dr. Ronald Rabinowitz, AUA Historian.

"Medical museums such as the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History preserve many unique and timeless artifacts that reflect the humans who devised them and the society in which they existed."

Although closed to the public during the pandemic, visitors can view exhibits, collections and even the gift shop online at:

The Didusch Center encompasses a rich and varied collection of drawings, photographs and instruments of historical importance to urology, many displayed in urological exhibits. The center also houses a library devoted to urological and early medical texts and the AUA archives.

The public can virtually view the entire Chief Complaints: Health of the American President exhibit for free.

The American Urological Association: was founded in 1902 and is an advocate for the specialty of urology which has nearly 24,000 members throughout the world. The AUA provides support to the urologic community as it pursues the mission of fostering the standards of urologic care through education, research and the formulation of health policy.