This Day In History: January 26

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On January 26, 1961, just about a week after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy appoints Janet Travell, 59, as his personal physician, making her the first woman in history to hold the post.

Dr. Travell possessed an impressive resume that included graduating with honors from Wellesley College, internships in cardiology, a professorship in clinical pharmacology at Cornell University and an established reputation as a pioneer in the treatment of chronic myofascial pain. (The term myofascial pain refers to aching pain or tenderness in the muscles and fibrous tissue that can cause weakness and feel like numbness, burning, tingling or aching.) Dr. Travell also designed prototypes of what would now be called ergonomic chairs. By the time she became the official presidential physician, Dr. Travell, an orthopedist, had worked closely with Kennedy for five years. Kennedy suffered from persistent back pain that he claimed was the cumulative effect of injuries sustained playing football and as a PT boat captain in World War II.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s rival for the Democratic nomination, leaked to the press that Kennedy had Addison’s disease. At Kennedy’s behest, Dr. Travell responded to the allegations, saying John F. Kennedy has not, nor has he ever had Addison’s disease. In 2002, an article in Atlantic magazine revealed that Dr. Travell had indeed treated Kennedy for Addison’s, a disease that affects the adrenal glands and can cause weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, chronic infections and low blood pressure. Dr. Jeffrey Kelman, who researched and published a book based on his review of Kennedy’s medical records stated that the president’s health problems probably would get him federal disability or retirement if he was around today.

Diagnosed in 1947, Kennedy kept up a busy schedule in the early years of his political life with the help of expensive and frequent cortisol injections. Still, his political career might have ended abruptly in 1954 when he underwent the first of two back surgeries; the second followed the next year. The operations were riskier than anyone except a small group of medical personnel and family members realized. A November 1955 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented Kennedy’s surgical case, withholding his name. In it, doctors agreed it was deemed dangerous to proceed with the surgery since impaired adrenal function from Addison’s disease greatly increased the operation’s risk of serious complications. Kennedy survived the surgeries, but they did not relieve his back pain; he continued to also suffer from Addison’s-related colitis and chronic infections.

Throughout Kennedy’s presidency, Travell prescribed an astounding number of medications to treat his pain including Phenobarbital, Librium, Meprobomate, Codeine, Demerol and Methadone. Kennedy also took Nembutal as a sleep aid. Travell’s treatment for Kennedy’s back pain involved the use of orthopedic shoes to correct a spinal imbalance, a back brace and a rocking chair. (After photographs of Kennedy in his Oval Office rocking chair appeared in the media, sales of rocking chairs skyrocketed across the country.) Travell also used an innovative treatment for muscle spasms: an injection of low-level procaine into the lumbar muscles, a technique that is still used in sports medicine today. The Kennedy family credited Dr. Travell with enabling a determined Kennedy to maintain the punishing schedule that his political career demanded despite chronic pain and illness.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Travell retained her post, becoming President Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal physician.