Tuesday, December 29, 2015

1861: Did Martin Van Buren Die of Asthma?

Another historical figure who was diagnosed with asthma was President Martin van Buren.  Although, chances are pretty good it was cardiac asthma he suffered from an not asthma.

Van Buren was born in Kinderhood, New York, to a tavern keeper and farmer.  He grew into a 5 feet six inch democratic republican who was very concerned about his appearance.  For his small stature, he earned the nickname "Little Van."  He was also known as an amiable and social man who loved to drink, and for this he earned the nickname "Blue Whiskey Van."

He was appointed by John Adams to be Secretary of State and Andrew Jackson to be Vice President. He became the 8th president of the United States in 1836. He is often sited as an insignificant President for his failure to end the economic depression that followed the panic of 1832, although further review of the evidence shows that Martin van Buren was a significant President.

Here is what the historychannel.com writes about van Buren's health.
(On January 21, 1862) former President Martin Van Buren, who served as the nation’s eighth president between 1837 and 1841, slips into a coma.
Van Buren, who developed asthma in 1860, had a history of heavy drinking as well as, later in life, cardiac problems. The drinking, for which he had earned a reputation as early as age 25, may have contributed to a host of illnesses he experienced in his lifetime. However, historians claim the man known as “Blue Whiskey Van” had largely given up, or began to hide, his alcohol consumption by the time he became Andrew Jackson’s vice president in 1829.
During his presidency and in subsequent years, Van Buren’s history of drinking, plus his increasing obesity, led to a battle with gout. He caught frequent colds, suffered from serious bouts of flu and developed a nervous stomach. For the stomach ailment, Van Buren was treated with a combination of water, charcoal and soot. After his tenure at the White House, at the age of 71, Van Buren’s continued struggles with gout led him to travel to France to stay at the same spa at which Thomas Jefferson sought treatment in 1821 for a fractured wrist.
Eight years later, as Van Buren developed asthma, his circulatory system began to fail, causing the coma. Three days later, he passed away. Some historians claim that a possible case of sleep apnea, caused by disruptive snoring, may have contributed to Van Buren’s declining health and his ultimate death.
He was diagnosed with asthma in 1860 and suffered from it for several months.  He also suffered from it in 1861. There is not evidence he suffered from asthma earlier in his life.

Chances are that what he suffered from was dyspnea associated with cardiac asthma, and not asthma as we know it today.  Having suffered from obesity, he was accused by the campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840 as having been a snorer as well. There is no evidence of this, but, considering his obesity, it's likely.

Both obesity and snoring, especially if he had sleep apnea, could contribute to heart failure (a.k.a cardiac asthma).  Cardiac asthma presents eerily similar to asthma.  Given the inability to differentiate between the two at the time, it only makes sense that he would be diagnosed with asthma.

Per drzebra.com: "In early 1862 van Buren was attended by the noted physician Dr. Alonzo Clark in New York ?City, presumably for "asthma." Van Buren returned to his upstate home in May 1862. He was weak and largely bedbound. He developed signs of circulatory failure, such as cold and clammy skin, in mid-July. On July 21 he became comatose, and died three days later, age 79."

You can decide for yourself if Martin Van Buren was a significant President or not.  The challenge here will be staying unbiased while doing your research. This may be difficult considering most Presidential scholars educating kids today tend to teach he was insignificant.

You can also decide for yourself whether he had asthma or not.  This task may be more of a challenge considering the lack of written material regarding the health of the President, particularly prior to his time in public office. Lacking further evidence, I think we can safely say he had cardiac asthma.

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