Medicine: Ailing Hickory

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Because of his toughness during the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson was nicknamed "Old Hickory" by his soldiers. Last week, a specialist in reconstructing diagnoses of historical figures reported that he rated the title. By the time it was conferred on him, Old Hickory, 46, had had smallpox, osteomyelitis, malaria, dysentery, rheumatism and half a dozen other assorted diseases; in his chest was a dueler's bullet that was to plague him until he died at 78.

In Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics, Librarian Frances Tomlinson Gardner, of the University of California Medical School, says it is doubtful that Jackson ever had tuberculosis, as some biographers have thought. What fooled them, she concludes, was his bronchitis, malarial fever, and a lung abscess caused by the bullet. But he had almost everything else: bronchiectasis (inflamed and dilated bronchial tubes), stomach, kidney and eye trouble; in later years, "cholera morbus" (widespread intestinal inflammation) and dropsy. From another duel he had an open wound in his left arm; doctors wanted to amputate, but he refused and trusted in a poultice of slippery elm (still used in lozenges for sore throat). He kept the arm, but later developed osteomyelitis (stubborn infection of the bone). The infections from the bullets, Diagnostician Gardner thinks, brought on amyloidosis (a waxy degeneration of body tissues). Jackson reached Washington after his first election as President "62 years old, racked with pain, fainting from weakness." Concludes Researcher Gardner: "No structure ever endured under greater handicaps than the frame that supported the brain of the astonishing, the determined, the invincible gentleman from Tennessee."