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Secret memo sheds new light on FDR's health


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History: A Roosevelt Mystery


April 18 issue - Sixty years ago this week, when Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away in Warm Springs, Ga., his doctors attributed his death to a cerebral hemorrhage linked to high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. There have, however, long been rumors about Roosevelt's health—rumors that began during the last year of his life. In a 1998 book, "The Dying President," the historian Robert H. Ferrell wrote of "talk that Roosevelt suffered from stomach cancer."

Since FDR's medical chart has disappeared—his doctor, Adm. Ross T. McIntire, apparently destroyed it—Ferrell noted that historians knew of only one document that could shed light on whether FDR had such a cancer: an unpublished memo dictated by Dr. Frank Lahey, the head of the Lahey Clinic in Boston and a consultant to McIntire. Lahey, who died in 1953, left the memo to his assistant. It became the subject of litigation, with the clinic unsuccessfully arguing that releasing it would compromise doctor-patient privilege. For the past 15 years, the document has been held by Dr. Harry Goldsmith, a surgeon with a longtime interest in FDR's health.

NEWSWEEK has obtained a copy of the Lahey memorandum, a typewritten page signed by Lahey and dated Monday, July 10, 1944. (The lawyer who removed the document from safekeeping after the litigation confirms that the memo NEWSWEEK saw is the same one he retrieved.) Dictated, Lahey says, "in the event there comes any criticism of me at a later date," it contains no mention of cancer, but the conclusion is grim and explicit: "I am recording these opinions in the light of having informed Admiral McIntire Saturday afternoon July 8, 1944 that I did not believe that, if Mr. Roosevelt were elected President again, he had the physical capacity to complete a term." In the next sentence, Lahey errs, saying that since FDR's "trip to Russia he had been in a state which was, if not in heart failure, at least on the verge of it, that this was the result of high blood pressure... plus a question of coronary damage." The mistake: in July 1944 FDR had never been to Russia; Lahey was referring to the president's visit to Soviet-occupied Tehran in 1943. It was either an honest slip or, possibly, Lahey wrote his memo after FDR's death, which came in the wake of Yalta, and backdated the document. But with McIntire alive, it seems unlikely Lahey would invent an exchange that could be easily challenged.

Lahey goes on: "It was my opinion that over the four years of another term with its burdens, he would again have heart failure and be unable to complete it. Admiral McIntire was in agreement with this." We do not know whether McIntire had the courage to pass Lahey's views along to FDR, who had a sense of invincibility and hated hearing bad news, two things McIntire well knew. Later in July, though, Roosevelt dropped his liberal vice president, Henry Wallace, in favor of Harry Truman. "Lahey's memo dramatically reminds us how close we came to having a President Henry Wallace, who underestimated the Soviet danger and might have made it harder for us to prevail in the cold war," says the historian Michael Beschloss.

There is another cancer theory—that FDR had a melanoma that manifested itself in a lesion over his eyebrow—but, so far, such speculation is just that: speculation. It seems fitting that Roosevelt, so elusive in life, remains enigmatic even in death.

—Jon Meacham

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