Diseases need heroes: men or women who have triumphed despite the disease. For the child with polio, one could always point to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who campaigned on leg braces to become governor of New York and then president of the United States. For epilepsy, there is always Joan of Arc or Napoleon. The blind and deaf have Helen Keller. Woodrow Wilson provides a similarly inspiring story for both dyslexia and stroke victims–but the story of his last two years in office provides a troubling example of how brain damage can affect judgment and even block insight into one’s own disabilities.
Wilson had dyslexia in childhood. Imagine not learning your letters until age 9, not reading until age 12, being a slow reader all your life. Rather than being a prescription for a life as a nonintellectual ditchdigger, this was part of the background of a man who became a professor at Princeton University and the author of a popularly acclaimed book on George Washington.When Professor Wilson was 39, he suffered a minor stroke that left him with weakness of the right arm and hand, sensory disturbances in the tips of several fingers, and an inability to write in his usual right-handed manner. As often happens following minor strokes, there was recovery: his
right-handed writing ability returned within a year.
Was his career impeded? No, in 1902 he became the president of Princeton. But the problem recurred in 1904. In 1906 it happened again, this time with blindness in the left eye (also supplied by the left internal carotid artery, which is probably where clots were originating which plugged up various small arteries in the left eye and left brain). While the right arm weakness went away, Wilson had enough damage to his left eye that he could never read with it again. Some think that his judgment was impaired in the following years–his attempts to reform Princeton academia were often impractical. By 1910 he was essentially being forced out of his presidency by the trustees.
But no matter–in 1910 Wilson was elected the governor of New Jersey. Being a university president is not the usual route to such an office (from being a zoology professor at the University of Washington, Dixie Lee Ray went on to become governor–but her stepping stones were positions as Nixon’s chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Assistant Secretary of State, not the presidency of the university!). From the governorship, Wilson began his successful campaign for president of the United States. He won the Democratic nomination after a protracted contest, on the forty-sixth ballot.
During the campaign in 1912, Governor Wilson again suffered from mild and temporary neurological problems (now called Transient Ischemic Attacks, or TIAs, they are minor strokes without detectable lasting effects). And, a month after his inauguration, President Wilson had an episode where his left arm and hand were weak. All of the previous right-sided troubles had implicated the left side of the brain. Now it appeared that the right brain was also being damaged by cerebral vascular disease. But he once again recovered, an inspiration to the 2.5 million stroke victims in the U.S. who must cope with their assorted disabilities.
During his first term, President Wilson suffered from serious headaches accompanied by high blood pressure. The headaches became particularly bad at the time of the Lusitania sinking by a German U-boat in l915. Were they just tension headaches, or perhaps neurological symptoms? He was re-elected to a second term in 1916, but suffered a number of TIAs during the next two years as American involvement grew in “the” world war.
Edwin A. Weinstein, the neurology professor who wrote the authoritative Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography, also notes that President Wilson “grew more suspicious, secretive, and egocentric.” An occupational hazard of the presidency–or a change in personality resulting from brain damage? The U.S. Constitution has since been amended to provide for presidential disability in office, but what neurologist would be brave enough to declare a president disabled from such a history? If Woodrow Wilson’s brain had suffered no further damage, the history of the following decades could have been very different. For Wilson in 1916 wanted Germany defeated but not crushed; he wanted Germany to be a viable member of the proposed League of Nations. He was convinced that a dictated peace Uwould be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and that would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which the terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”