Did Franklin D. Roosevelt actually die from cancer?

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 24 2009 12:20 PM

Roosevelt's Last Days

Did cancer kill FDR?

Franklin D. Roosevelt. Click image to expand.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Is it conceivable that Franklin D. Roosevelt's doctors knew he had widespread cancer in 1944 and still let him run for his fourth term as president? New research makes this astounding argument—and claims that the physician who supposedly told the truth about Roosevelt's death in 1970 was in fact continuing the deception he had helped create.

FDR may have died more than 60 years ago, but these questions still matter. Not only does presidential health—and the public's right to know about it—remain a controversial issue, but in Roosevelt's case, the lies in question, if true, changed history. As neurologist Steven Lomazow and journalist Eric Fettman point out in a book coming out this January, FDR's Deadly Secret, widespread knowledge of Roosevelt's cancer would have prevented him from running in 1944 and thus likely altered the shaping of postwar Europe.

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Roosevelt was in the business of concealing his medical afflictions. After a bout with polio in 1921, he never regained the use of his legs and used braces and a wheelchair, but he asked not to be photographed in ways that would reveal his disabilities.

Beginning in early 1944, the fact that Roosevelt had severely elevated blood pressure and congestive heart failure was also kept secret. These diagnoses were made by Howard G. Bruenn, a Columbia University cardiologist and Navy physician who became Roosevelt's primary doctor. When Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, early in his fourth term, Bruenn misleadingly analogized the bleed to a "bolt of lightning." Of course, he knew better: Very high blood pressure can cause bleeding in the brain.

It was not until 1970 that Bruenn came clean—or at least seemed to. In an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, he described his heretofore secret efforts to treat Roosevelt's blood pressure and heart problems. The article became the definitive account of FDR's passing. However, according to Lomazow and Fettman, it was just another attempt to obscure the truth.

Over the years, other rumors about Roosevelt's health circulated, including the claim that he had suffered strokes. Most interesting was a 1979 paper in Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics by a surgeon and amateur historian, Harry Goldsmith, who noted that an enlarging skin lesion above Roosevelt's left eye disappeared in photographs after 1940. He theorized that the lesion was a melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, and that the disease had spread to Roosevelt's abdomen, causing him episodes of severe pain during the last months of his life.

Goldsmith's article received national attention, and he eventually self-published a book on Roosevelt's medical condition. But Lomazow and Fettman have greatly expanded Goldsmith's research. What they believe is that the melanoma spread not only to Roosevelt's abdomen but to his brain. The bleed that killed the president, they hypothesize, was due to the cancer, not the hypertension.