During the H1N1 flu pandemic of 1917-19, President Woodrow Wilson at age 62 caught the contagion and became so sick as to be delusional. As Michael Rosenwald reports in The Washington Post, “Wilson’s personal secretary was among the first in his administration to be sickened by a pandemic that would ultimately infect 500 million people. Margaret, his eldest daughter, got it. Secret Service members did, too. Even the White House sheep were not spared.” In April 1919, Wilson traveled to the Paris Peace Conference for talks on ending the Great War. But he was sick — he could not even sit up in bed, had uncontrollable coughing and spasms, and became delusional, according to aides — that the conference was almost derailed.
A few months after he recovered from the flu, in October 1919, Wilson had a stroke that incapacitated him for the remainder of his presidency. The Wilsons and their advisors tried to keep the president’s poor health secret from the public while his wife Edith made many of the president’s important decisions.
Barry refuses to speculate on whether Wilson’s illness caused different outcomes in the Paris Peace Conference, or if the flu might have contributed to his stroke months later.
- H1N1 flu pandemic of 1917-19 killed 50 million people worldwide.
- Woodrow Wilson’s Flu: Michael Rosenwald’s report in The Washington Post.
- Scott Berg’s 2014 Wilson biography.
- John Barry’s book “The Great Influenza.”