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When the leader is ill—or addicted to cocaine, meth, steroids, or hormones

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2010 - Spring


Adolf Hitler was “a good patient,” according to his doctors. He was meticulously adherent to the regimen for his chronic sinusitis: cocaine in aerosol form. That was one of the anecdotes Jerrold M. Post, M.D. ’60, shared with a reunion audience on June 4 during his talk, “When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Psychopolitics of Illness in High Office.” When the “high and mighty” get “mighty high,” he said, it can affect leadership. Post spent 21 years with the Central Intelligence Agency producing medical and psychological profiles of world leaders. He now teaches psychiatry and political psychology at the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University.

Hitler’s drug use was of epic proportions, Post said. In addition to cocaine, the German dictator also took amphetamines, sedatives, and hormones, prescribed by a doctor Post described as a “quack.” And he was not the only world leader dependent on drugs. During the 1956 Suez crisis, according to Post, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden desperately sought his doctor, saying, “I must have my benzedrine!” In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy relied on a “doctor to the stars” for injections that a new biography identifies as methamphetamine.

Alzheimer disease afflicted several aging leaders according to Post, including three positioned to hinder Hitler’s rise in the 1930s: German President Paul von Hindenburg, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and Polish Field Marshal Józef Piłsudski. Post maintains, however, that President Ronald Reagan’s behavior in office was not affected by Alzheimer disease. Instead Post accepts the picture painted by journalist Bob Woodward, who says that Reagan was more gravely injured in a 1981 assassination attempt than was publicly acknowledged. After being wounded in the chest by a bullet fired by John Hinckley Jr., Reagan lost three-quarters of his circulating blood volume and probably suffered brain damage.

The illness of a leader is often concealed, said Post, citing examples that included President Grover Cleveland’s mouth cancer. After a secret operation on the presidential yacht in July 1893 to remove a cancerous upper jaw and palate, Cleveland explained his pain and swelling to a suspicious press as the results of dental extraction of two bad teeth.

While most physicians will never be asked to treat a world leader, Post said that the same issues of secrecy and privilege apply to such VIP patients as leading executives and celebrities. “Because of the need for the VIP to protect his image, VIPs can get poor medical care, compromising his health. Indeed being a VIP can be fatal,” he said.

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