Did A "Field of Human Excrement" By The White House Kill A President?

Illustration for article titled Did A Field of Human Excrement By The White House Kill A President?

If you remember President William Henry Harrison from U.S. history class at all, then you probably remember him as the poor fellow who died from pneumonia a month after delivering his inaugural address in freezing rain. Except was it really pneumonia after all? A New York Times article suggests a different theory, and a cautionary tale against giving long speeches instead turns into one against improper sewage systems.

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Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak writing in the Times set the fetid scene for us in 19th-century Washington, DC:

In those days the nation's capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for "night soil," hauled there each day at government expense.

That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.

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Harrison's symptoms and the time course of his illness pointed to a diagnosis other than pneumonia, most likely enteric fever. Two other presidents—James Polk and Zachary Taylor—also fell ill to severe stomach bugs during their time in the pre-sewer days of the White House.

While Washington DC now enjoys modern sanitation, the bacteria in poop still causes devastating illness that is the second leading cause of death in children under five around the world. Enteric fever may feel like faraway problem for developing nations now, but it once struck in the very heart of our nation. [New York Times]

Top image: Harrison via Wikimedia Commons and Salmonella typhi bacteria via CDC

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DISCUSSION

In mid 1800s London there were a few people who studied the people who made a living scavenging articles of clothing and other items from the sewers to see why they did not die from "miasma." Miasma was the name given to the stink from sewage and was the basis of most unexplained sicknesses - cholera being one. Bacteria had been discovered in Italy as microscopic critters, but their role in health had not been identified. The conclusion of the miasma study was that simply breathing bad air did not make one sick. The did not know why people got sick but the workers in the sewer were not any more likely to become sick than anyone.