July 21

This Day in History

Presidential

Jul 21, 1862:

Former President Martin Van Buren lapses into a coma

On this day in 1862, former President Martin Van Buren, who served as the nation's eighth president between 1837 and 1841, slips into a coma.

Van Buren, who developed asthma in 1860, had a history of heavy drinking as well as, later in life, cardiac problems. The drinking, for which he had earned a reputation as early as age 25, may have contributed to a host of illnesses he experienced in his lifetime. However, historians claim the man known as "Blue Whiskey Van" had largely given up, or began to hide, his alcohol consumption by the time he became Andrew Jackson's vice president in 1829.

During his presidency and in subsequent years, Van Buren's history of drinking, plus his increasing obesity, led to a battle with gout. He caught frequent colds, suffered from serious bouts of flu and developed a nervous stomach. For the stomach ailment, Van Buren was treated with a combination of water, charcoal and soot. After his tenure at the White House, at the age of 71, Van Buren's continued struggles with gout led him to travel to France to stay at the same spa at which Thomas Jefferson sought treatment in 1821 for a fractured wrist.

Eight years later, as Van Buren developed asthma, his circulatory system began to fail, causing the coma. Three days later, he passed away. Some historians claim that a possible case of sleep apnea, caused by disruptive snoring, may have contributed to Van Buren's declining health and his ultimate death.

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