A History of Presidential Medical Advisors

By Nathaniel Whelan on June 12 2020 in History

Lt. Commander Sean Conley (receiving the badge of honour), one of the Chief White House Physicians of the United States.
Lt. Commander Sean Conley (receiving the badge of honour), one of the Chief White House Physicians of the United States.
  • Colloquially known as the “Shadow of the President,” the Chief White House Physician must always be close at hand, both on and off American soil.
  • In 1789, Samuel Bard became the first medical professional to tend to a United States president when he treated a boil on George Washington’s thigh.
  • Chief White House Physician Joel T. Boone invented a sport that combines medicine ball, tennis, and volleyball with the aim of keeping Herbert Hover healthy and active.

If the president of the United States falls ill, it could have long-lasting political consequences on the country depending on the severity of the circumstances. That is why it is necessary to have a medical professional on hand to tend to their every need. The following article examines the main role of the Chief White House Physician—also known as the Physician to the President—and provides a brief history of the esteemed position.

As the medical advisor to the leader of the country, the Chief White House Physician has a responsibility not just to the president and their health, but to the United States as well. This individual is usually chosen by the president and is often an active-duty military officer with a broad background in medicine. Colloquially known as the “Shadow of the President,” they must always be close at hand, both on and off American soil; it is just as likely that they will accompany the president abroad as it is to a local dinner party.

The physician also typically cares for the president’s family, the vice president, the White House staff, and all guests. As the director of the White House Medical Unit, they oversee a staff that includes other physicians, nurses, assistants, and IT managers. Since 2010, the unit has been made up of 24 medical professionals. They work out of the White House itself which has a full clinic equipped with private exam rooms and supplied with medical instruments and basic medications. Air Force One also contains the necessary equipment in case of emergency.  

The Role Of The Chief White House Physician

The main role of the president’s personal physician can be split into two.

Firstly, they watch over the president’s general health, providing simple medical advice when necessary, as well as encouraging proper dietary habits and active lifestyles. Sometimes this requires creative solutions. For example, Chief White House Physician and US Naval Officer Joel T. Boone invented a sport that combines medicine ball, tennis, and volleyball with the aim of keeping Herbert Hover healthy and active. In 1931, a reporter from the New York Times dubbed the game "Hooverball." The president enjoyed it so much he played with his staff every morning six days a week, only ever missing one game. Today, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association in Iowa hosts a national tournament every year.

The second main role of the Chief White House Physician is to respond to emergency situations and provide medical support. This is best exemplified in the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot the president, puncturing one of his lungs and causing severe internal bleeding. When Reagan arrived at the hospital, his personal physician Daniel Ruge was forced to make a critical decision. Rather than perform surgery himself or calling for a different high-esteemed surgeon, he instructed the in-house trauma team to perform the operation themselves as if he was any other patient. Once Reagan returned to the White House just twelve days later, Ruge received huge praise for allowing the hospital to proceed as usual, ultimately leading to the president’s quick recovery.  

Physician Firsts

Samuel Bard.
  • Samuel Bard received his M.D. at the University of Edinburgh and went on to found the first hospital in New York. In 1789, George Washington appointed him as his personal physician. He soon became the first medical professional to tend to a United States president when he treated a boil on Washington’s thigh.
  • Getting his start as a naval surgeon, Presley Marion Rixey acted as the Chief White House Physician for presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He is considered the first doctor to hold this position in a full-time capacity.
  • Ross T. McIntire was a United States Navy officer. In 1932, he became the personal physician to President Franklin Roosevelt. As an otolaryngologist, he is considered the first Chief White House Physician with a certified specialty.
  • In 1961, Janet G. Travell became the first woman in American history to acquire the position. She treated John F. Kennedy for Addison’s disease, but with the young president wanting to maintain his image of vitality, she obeyed the man’s right to privacy by publicly denying the diagnosis.
  • Eleanor Connie Mariano was the first Filipino American to become a Navy Admiral. In 1992, she also became the first military woman to be appointed as the president’s personal physician.

The Current Chief White House Physician

Sean Conley is an officer in the United States Navy who is qualified in osteopathic medicine. In March 2018, he was named the Chief White House Physician, a position he still retains. His predecessor, Ronny Jackson, held the position since 2006, serving under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

Conley has recently come under fire for allowing Trump to take hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug unproven to treat COVID-19. While it has not gone through any clinical trials, Conley has taken responsibility, claiming that the “potential benefit from treatment [outweighs] the relative risks.”

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