Medicine: A President's Grief

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"When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him," wrote Calvin Coolidge of the death, at 16, of his namesake son. Young Calvin blistered his heel playing tennis on the White House courts, died of what was then called "blood poisoning" in July 1924. Last week in the Bulletin of Temple University Medical Center, Philadelphia's Dr. John Albert Kolmer,* who was called to the White House as a consultant in young Coolidge's case, added a graphic footnote to the story of the death:

"About two hours before death it was decided to administer oxygen. The wrong valves were accidentally opened on the oxygen tank, with the result that a glass container exploded. A fragment of glass struck the President on the forehead, but, fortunately, with slight injury . . . During the last two hours of life the patient was attended by me alone, in the presence of the President and Mrs. Coolidge and a nurse. From time to time I examined the heart and was astounded by the President requesting that he be permitted to listen to the heart sounds.

"At about 10 p.m. I announced that the boy was rapidly dying. The President sprang from his chair and took his dying son in his arms, shouting hysterically into his ears that he would soon join him in the great beyond, and requesting that young Calvin so inform his grandmother (the mother of the President). A medallion of the grandmother was also placed in the hands of the dying boy . . . The boy died at 10:20 p.m."

Although Dr. Kolmer did not make the point, it is ironically true that modern medicine, armed with penicillin and other antibiotics, would have a better than two-to-one chance of saving a patient from the type of infection (Staphylococcus albus) that killed young Coolidge.

* Last in the national spotlight in 1935, after he developed a primitive vaccine against polio that was given to 10,000 children. Nine cases of polio, some fatal, were attributed to defects in the vaccine.