What Bacteria Killed the Presidents?

This Presidents’ Day, we are examining the bacteria that took down some of our fearless leaders.

George Washington

George Washington

Cause of Death: Epiglottis (likely Streptococcus pneumoniae or Staphylococcus aureus)

George Washington was one of the many patients of his time to undergo bloodletting. Unfortunately, it did not work for George. Epiglottis, caused by bacteria including Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus, claimed his life on December 14th, 1799.

Thomas Jefferson​

Thomas Jefferson

Cause of Death: Escherichia coli

Was romaine lettuce the cause of Thomas Jefferson’s death on July 4th, 8126? Not quite. Though E. coli has been the cause of recent romaine lettuce recalls, Thomas Jefferson acquired the bacteria through an unsterile medical technique leading to the kidney infection that ultimately claimed his life.

James Monroe​

Cause of Death: Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Although James Monroe served as POTUS during the “Era of Good Feelings,” his post-office years were plagued by financial difficulties and health problems, including several bouts of fever. Monroe succumbed to Tuberculosis on July 4th, 1831. The culprit was Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

William Henry Harrison​

Cause of Death: Salmonella

William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office, after contracting typhoid fever. A common misconception is that Harrison contracted pneumonia from a severe cold. Modern research, however, points to typhoid fever, caused by a type of Salmonella contaminating the water (the public water supply was near the sewer drainage).

James K. Polk​

James Polk

Cause of Death: Vibrio cholerae

Cholera isn’t just the disease that took your wagon members’ lives on the PC game Oregon Trail. Vibrio cholerae, a bacterium that can hide in your food or drinking water, is the cause of Cholera. James K. Polk lost his battle with Cholera on June 15th, 1849.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Cause of Death: Campylobacter jejuni

Zachary Taylor suffered from gastroenteritis caused by the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni. Controversy surrounded his death on July 9th, 1850. Many believed he had been poisoned. His body was exhumed in 1991, and scientists could find no signs that Taylor had been poisoned.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

Cause of Death: Streptococcus pneumoniae

Benjamin Harrison passed away on March 13, 1901. Streptococcus pneumoniae, a cause of pneumonia, was the bacteria at play in this death. His grandfather was William Henry Harrison. Death by bacteria seems to run in the family.

William McKinley

William McKinley

Cause of Death: Clostridium perfringens

Although McKinley was shot twice in the abdomen, it was gas gangrene that did him in. Today’s diagnostic tools and antibiotics might have saved his life. He died on September 14th, 1901, more than a week after getting shot. Clostridium perfringens is the bacteria commonly associated with gas gangrene.

 

 

 

 

 

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