Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 18, 2021

President Woodrow Wilson's Stroke: Illness Strikes

Returning Home from the Peace Conference, July 1919
President and Mrs. Wilson with Wounded Soldiers
Aboard SS George Washington

Woodrow Wilson may have been one of our hardest-working chief executives and by the fall of 1919, he looked it. For most of the six months between late December 1918 and June 1919, our 28th president was in Europe negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and planning for the nascent League of Nations, efforts for which he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize (an award he did not officially receive until 1920). Back home, however, the ratification of the treaty met with mixed public support and strong opposition from Republican senators, led by Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), as well as Irish Catholic Democrats. As the summer progressed, President Wilson worried that defeat was in the air.

Bone-tired but determined to wage peace, on 3 September 1919, Woodrow Wilson embarked on a national speaking tour across the United States so that he could make his case directly to the American people. For the next three and a half weeks, the president, his wife Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, assorted aides, servants, cooks, Secret Service men, and members of the press rode the rails. The presidential train car, quaintly named Mayflower, served as a rolling White House. Also joining the party was the president’s personal physician, Cary T. Grayson, who had grave concerns over his patient’s health.

All during September of 1919, as the presidential train traveled across the Midwest, into the Great Plains states, over the Rockies into the Pacific Northwest and then down the West Coast before turning back east, the president became thinner, paler, and ever more frail. He lost his appetite, his asthma grew worse, and he complained of unrelenting headaches. Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson refused to listen to his body.

Late on the evening of 25 September 1919, after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, Edith discovered Woodrow in a profound state of illness; his facial muscles were twitching uncontrollably and he was experiencing severe nausea. Earlier in the day, he complained of a splitting headache. Six weeks after the event, Dr. Grayson told a journalist that he had noted a “curious drag or looseness at the left side of [Wilson’s] mouth—a sign of danger that could no longer be obscured.” In retrospect, this event may have been a transient ischemic attack (TIA), the medical term for a brief loss of blood flow to the brain, or “mini-stroke,” which can be a harbinger for a much worse cerebrovascular event to follow—in other words, a full-fledged stroke.

President Wilson Meeting with a Women's Group in San Francisco About Ten Days Before the 25 September Episode

On 26 September, the president’s private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, announced that the rest of the speaking tour had been canceled because the president was suffering from “a nervous reaction in his digestive organs.” The Mayflower sped directly back to Washington’s Union Station. Upon arrival, on 28 September, the president appeared ill but was able to walk on his own accord through the station. He tipped his hat to awaiting crowd, shook the hands of a few of the people along the track’s platform, and was whisked away to the White House for an enforced period of rest and examination by a battery of doctors.

Everything changed on the morning of 2 October 1919. According to some accounts, the president awoke to find his left hand numb to sensation before falling into unconsciousness. In other versions, Wilson had his stroke on the way to the bathroom and fell to the floor with Edith dragging him back into bed. However those events transpired, immediately after the president’s collapse, Mrs. Wilson discretely phoned down to the White House chief usher, Ike Hoover, and told him to “please get Dr. Grayson, the president is very sick.”

Grayson quickly arrived. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the president's bedroom, and the doctor’s diagnosis was terrible: “My God, the president is paralyzed,” Grayson declared. What would surprise most Americans today is how the entire affair, including Wilson’s extended illness and long-term disability, was shrouded in secrecy.

Part II, Tomorrow: Governing the Nation

Source: PBS News Hour, 2 October 2015, Dr. Howard Markel, Correspondent


  1. Whatever else we think, we have to admire the President's strength and courage in sticking it out for so long.

  2. It wasn't his first stroke, apparently. He'd suffered at least two before.