With Hillary Clinton falling victim to pneumonia, in a move to show how human and relatable she is to voters, people in the media have been highlighting the many other ailments that Presidents have suffered. And whenever we talk about Presidential ailments, William Henry Harrison (who died in 30 days) is always one of the first people to be discussed.
Traditional wisdom holds that Harrison gave a long speech on inauguration day, refused to wear a hat on a cold day, contracted pneumonia and died only a month into his term. A cautionary tale used by every mother who wants her kid to wear a hat outside. And hey, even Harrison's physician said he died of "pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung, complicated by congestion of the liver."
Seems legit, right? Well faithful readers, let me be the first to tell you that William Henry Harrison's doctor was an idiot and we have all been lied to. The doctor himself, Thomas Miller, recalled that the disease didn't look like "pure pneumonia" but that "pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer" to Harrison's symptoms. Basically, Dr. Miller didn't know what was going on, and went with the classic "eh, close enough."
Recent epidemiological evidence has shown that it likely wasn't Harrison's 8,000+ word inauguration speech or refusal to wear a coat that killed him, but a contaminated water source that the White House was using.
Back in the 1800s, there was no indoor plumbing, so people just deposited feces wherever they could. And that meant that sometimes, those feces flowed into the drinking water. This "night soil" depository became a breeding ground for the type of bacteria that causes typhoid, which then got into the White House water, and caused William Henry Harrison to fall ill.
Before you think that this was a one-time fluke, Harrison was not even the only President to die from this contaminated water! There's a very popular theory that President Zachary Taylor died after drinking ice milk and eating cherries. Now of course, that sounds too ridiculous to be true, and it just might be. Taylor's ultimate cause of death was an intestinal issue, similar to Harrison, and likely caused by the same contaminated water source. And President Polk, who died after leaving the White House, reportedly passed away from cholera, which around the world is caused by fecal matter in water.
Sometimes a cause of death isn't as far-fetched as cherries or not wearing gloves, and can actually be found in something far more common. Globally, 1.8 billion people have drinking water contaminated by feces, and this causes over 500,000 deaths a year. This 1.8 billion figure does not even take into account the number of people whose water is contaminated by other sources like lead (18 million, just in America) or other chemicals. While our country has come a long way since the 1800s in terms of clean water, we still have a long way to go.
And finally, you may ask, what does any of knowledge have to do with anything? The answer is not much, but how great is it that we can separate our water from our fecal matter now? That's truly making America great, and sometimes we should stop and remember that.
Truly finally, the majority of this information first came from the podcast Presidential, which is one of the best new podcasts in the game, and I urge you all to give it a listen.