A Kennedy Biographer Assesses the Dallek Disclosures

tags: JFK, Kennedys, presidential health

Mr. Leamer is the author of The Kennedy Men and The Kennedy Women.

HNN: The JFK Medical Files

Rarely has a story about a forthcoming history book had such a stunning effect as did the Sunday front page New York Times article detailing material in President John F. Kennedy's medical files opened to the researcher Robert Dallek.

In an age demanding heroes, here was JFK standing naked before us, his body punctured by the ravages of disease. All the unseemly revelations and revisionist scars were miraculously gone, and Americans saw John F. Kennedy anew, a brave, solitary figure standing up against the brutally unfair onslaughts of ill health and disease.

Most of this medical history had already been explored or speculated upon in a series of books in the last two decades. What was new was the overwhelming detail, the dramatic context, and the sense that finally here was the full, unmitigated truth. As important as it is that the Kennedy Library is finally opening up these files, if only to one select researcher, they offer a skewed, incomplete picture of Kennedy's health and his medical life in the White House.

Last year in my book, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, I had the first time use of the material that Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, secreted away when she left the White House. This is precisely the kind of material that probably would have been excised before reaching the Kennedy Library.

In November 1961, Dr. Eugene Cohen wrote President Kennedy an extraordinary letter warning him about injections filled with amphetamines that he was receiving from Dr. Max Jacobson.

''You cannot be permitted to receive therapy from irresponsible doctors like M.J. who by forms of stimulating injections offer some temporary help to neurotic or mentally ill individuals ... this therapy conditions one's needs almost like a narcotic, is not for responsible individuals who at any split second may have to decide the fate of the universe.''

Cohen, who had been Kennedy's endocrinologist since 1956, was worried about ministrations that risked addicting the president. A bill in the Lincoln files shows that Jacobson was seeing the president roughly once a week.

Beyond that, the doctor gave favored patients doses that they could inject themselves. Many of his patients returned repeatedly delighted at the bounce they had in their steps when they left his office, but others ended up ravaged, emotionally destroyed when they tried to stop the injections.

Cohen and his colleague Dr. George Burkley were also worried about Dr. Janet Travell, the White House doctor, and considered her an incompetent egomaniac. They believed that the Novocain injections she used to treat Kennedy's back pain were extremely dangerous, pushing him to the use of narcotics to relieve the pain. Cohen warned Kennedy about Travell as someone ''who is a potential threat to your well-being.''

As for Kennedy's overall health, Cohen admonished the president: ''The program requires constant sacrifice on your part not only in the present but in the future.''

I confirmed these letters and this account with Cohen's sister and two of his medical associates and ended up convinced that Cohen was a hero whose concern was not only Kennedy's health but the health of the nation.

Although Travell was pushed aside as the White House doctor at the end of 1961, her treatments apparently did not end. Nor did Kennedy stop seeing Jacobson. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, became so worried that in June 1962 he had the FBI examine vials of Jacobson's mysterious injections. The New York doctor continued to see the president, giving him the kinds of medication that would later see him barred from medical practice.

Kennedy had his own heroic qualities in his refusal to live life as a semi-invalid. He was also in some ways a willful, reckless man who took chances with his health, in his personal life, and with the nation. Although Kennedy acted magnificently during the Cuban missile crisis, it is absurd to suggest that his illnesses and amphetamine use had no impact on his presidency.

President Kennedy made his own choices. We can only ask ourselves what kind of president he would have been if had listened to Cohen, gotten rid of Jacobson, stopped taking Novocain injections, and attempted to deal with his health in other ways.

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

gregory sinner - 12/20/2003

am interested in dr max jacobson am suffering from mild strain of mental illness and cultural(ethnic heritage)pessimism. i want to be a kind and loving person instead. would you please tell me more about dr max jacobson. am 36 years old, single, never married, with alternative lifestyle interests.

Zoltan Lemhényi - 7/5/2003

Our Ngo based in Stockholm Sweden is just issuing an open letter proposing a major change in global planning, hopefully it will have an effect of the UN's policies, and not knowing about your research we based our point on the fact that many world leaders were addicts, therefore we feel very grateful for such revelations of factual truth.

In case the publication of our open letter should be of interest to you please contact Mr.Kesty at 003679420908, head of our International Major Dept.

Thank you. Zoltan Lemhenyi, General Secretary

Jeff Kell - 1/17/2003

Okay......I agree he ideally SHOULD have dealt with his health problems in other ways....however as a sufferer of Celiac I know full well two things:one, he was never ever for a single solitary moment told the truth about the diet he should have followed because the medical profession was--and remains generally today---far too incompetent in the proper assessment of such a disease. Secondly, he did the best he could under such a situation which was rife with ignrorance and a pharmaceutical bent.
The other thing I know is that his Catholicism tended to make him philosophically a fatalist with regard to the issue of life and death, and that his statement that "Life is unfayyyyahhh" and the statement that followed:"some people are sick while others are wayell- arose out of his Celiac Disease. I know full well the frustration when common grain proteins found in common foods create the disease process of Celiac.
The thing I find most disheartening however is that the doctors involved in this, instead of using this information to benefit the living a la a quote from Jesus:"Let the dead bury their dead" instead would rather play the game which suggests they were always tied to science and the scientific method, which is as false as false can be. Besides which, valid science and conclusions can be made from the descriptions of his symptoms, an art and science lost in the development of modern medical practice and thinking.