Analysis: When a president got sick and downplayed it (in 1919)

Analysis: When a president got sick and downplayed it (in 1919)


Pandemics are political, and they always have been. Look, for example, at Woodrow Wilson.

In April 1919, President Wilson started coughing. The flu pandemic was raging. It would ultimately kill more than 600,000 people in the United States.

It was a pivotal moment, as The New Yorker described in a recent article. Wilson started showing symptoms in Europe, engaged in peace negotiations to end the first world war.


Though he was apparently violently ill, publicly Wilson downplayed the severity of his illness. As author and historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “President Woodrow Wilson publicly tried to pretend that the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic … was not happening, even after he himself got sick.”

There was even a photo released of Wilson, standing defiantly, Beschloss suggested, in an apparent effort to demonstrate his health.



Interestingly, Wilson later showed some of the psychological issues sometimes associated with a severe flu infection. An aide said he was obsessed with “funny things,” including the idea that he was surrounded by French spies.

“We could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind,” Irwin Hoover, the president’s chief usher, said, as The New Yorker reported. “One thing is certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”

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