The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt

J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. Sep-Oct 2015;3(5):696-701.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jaip.2015.06.010. Epub 2015 Aug 10.


In this special article, we examine the asthma of President Theodore "TR" Roosevelt (1858-1919). Through a comprehensive review of thousands of source documents, and a modern understanding of asthma, we examine several misunderstandings, including the longstanding assertion that TR's illness was "psychosomatic." TR's respiratory problems began in early childhood, and the historical record provides strong evidence for poorly controlled, persistent asthma. Like many patients, his asthma entered a relatively quiescent stage during adolescence, coincident with initiation of a vigorous exercise program when TR was 12 years old. Nevertheless, TR continued to suffer serious asthma exacerbations, both in adolescence and adulthood. Although psychosocial issues affect most chronic diseases, there is little (if any) support for assertions that TR's asthma was psychosomatic. We believe that TR's childhood struggles with asthma, and the misconception that he vanquished his illness through exercise, were experiences that profoundly affected his worldview. TR is known for his appreciation of life's struggles and for a bedrock belief that people can create major change with sufficient motivation and hard work. In different ways, misunderstandings about asthma contributed to the early development of these personal characteristics. Together with later experiences, they contributed to a lifetime of action that changed modern history.

Keywords: Asthma; Biography; History; Psychology; Theodore Roosevelt.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Asthma / history*
  • Asthma / psychology
  • Child
  • Famous Persons
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Politics
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / history*
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / psychology
  • United States

Personal name as subject

  • Theodore Roosevelt