1934: Young JFK in hospital


The young JFK, messing around with Lem Billings during their Choate years

The young JFK, messing around with Lem Billings during their Choate years

In the summer of 1934, future United States president John F Kennedy was in his junior year at the prestigious Choate School in Connecticut. He was also plagued by ill health. Kennedy was unwell through much of his childhood, beginning with a near-deadly case of scarlet fever before his third birthday. At Choate, a good deal of his time was spent in its sick bay. Though active and seemingly fit, 17-year-old Kennedy struggled with a number of ailments including fatigue, dizziness, fainting spells, joint soreness, back pain and dangerous weight loss. Baffled doctors suggested everything from influenza to an ulcer to leukaemia. In June 1934 his frustrated parents booked Kennedy into the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was subjected to a battery of tests. Doctors at Mayo pricked and probed the future president for two weeks, trying to find a reason for his general illness and fatigue. Some of these tests were painful and humiliating, leading Kennedy to describe Mayo as the “god-damnest hole I’ve ever seen”. He went into more detail in letters to a high school friend, Lem Billings:


 

“I’ve got something wrong with my intestines. In other words I shit blood… Yesterday I went through the most harassing experience of my life… [A doctor] stuck an iron tube, 12 inches long and one inch in diameter, up my ass… My poor bedraggled rectum is looking at me very reproachfully these days…”

 

Kennedy’s notes to Billings were also filled with banter about girls and sex. The two boys had lost their virginity earlier in the year, Kennedy to a white prostitute in Harlem, and sex was very much on his mind:

 

“I’m still eating peas and corn for food, [but] I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde. That is the height of cheap thrills…”

 

“The nurses here are the dirtiest bunch of females I’ve ever seen. One of them wanted to know if I would give her a work-out last night… I said yes, but she was put off duty early…”

 

“I have not [experienced] orgasm for six days, so feel kind of horny, which has been increased by reading one of the dirtiest books I’ve ever seen…”

 

Kennedy was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and placed on a bland diet of rice, potatoes and milk. This did not improve his health – and as later history suggests, it did nothing to alleviate his sexual appetite either.

Source: John F. Kennedy letters to LeMoyne Billings, June 1934.

1822: Man has ingrown curtain ring removed from penis


Robert Liston (1794-1847) was a Scottish surgeon, known for his anatomical knowledge, skill and fast hands. Liston was famous – and to some extent notorious – for the speed of his amputations. It was said he could remove a leg in well under a minute, an astonishing feat at a time when amputations involved a lot of laborious hacking and sawing. Liston’s speed often came at a cost, however. According to legend, Liston once accidentally slashed the fingers of an assistant – and both the patient and the assistant later died of gangrene. Liston was also said to have accidentally sliced off a man’s testicles while amputating his leg at the thigh. Between 1818 and 1840, when he relocated to London, Liston worked in private practice in his native Edinburgh. Other physicians loathed him for his short temper and sharp tongue. Liston’s willingness to treat the poor made him more popular with ordinary Scots, though he had a reputation for impatience and carelessness.

In 1822 Liston, then a young man in his late 20s, provided a local medical journal with an account of a recent case. He was approached by a man in his late 50s who complained of difficulty urinating – however the patient refused to let the doctor make “any examination of the parts” and promptly left. Several months later the man returned, his complaint now considerably worse. This time he told Liston the whole story:

Robert Liston, about to hack off a leg

Robert Liston, about to hack off a leg

 
“About the age of nine or ten [the patient] had incontinence of urine and was frequently chastised by his parents on account of this occurrence during the night [bedwetting]. In order to save himself from a flogging, before going to bed he passed a brass curtain ring over the penis, as far as he could. This expedient had the desired effect, but in the morning swelling had come on [and prevented] his removing it. Notwithstanding all his suffering from pain and difficulty in passing his urine, he made no complaint.”
 

The curtain ring remained lodged at the base of his penis for 47 years. Eventually it sank into the skin which, according to Liston, “adhered over the foreign body, and there it remained”. Strangely, the foreign body gave the patient no significant trouble, a fact evidenced by him becoming “the father of a fine family”. Seeking to resolve the man’s continence issues, Liston examined him and found a “broad hard substance” around the base of his member. Not one to mess around, the doctor set to work incising and separating skin from the lower penis. After much work Liston managed to extract the brass ring, which after almost five decades had become encrusted with calculus (hard growth formed by salt and urea deposits). The operation brought some improvement to the man’s urinary issues but he died of lung disease shortly after.


Source: Robert Liston, “Account of a calculus in the urethra, formed upon a brass ring” in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. 19, 1823.