Barron H. Lerner: Did Franklin D. Roosevelt actually die from cancer?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Ph.D., and professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine.]

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.

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.

The most provocative evidence the authors present is that Roosevelt had a left-sided hemianopsia—a loss in vision—toward the end of his life. This indicated a mass in the right side of his brain. Lomazow and Fettman arrive at this conclusion based on an ingenious bit of research. On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt had given a speech to Congress, reporting on his recent trip to Yalta to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. During the speech, Roosevelt appeared confused: He skipped words in his prepared remarks, ad-libbed, and repeated several points. Critics later seized on this speech as evidence that the president was deteriorating mentally.

Lomazow and Fettman obtained both a video of Roosevelt giving the speech and the text he used. Comparing the two, they concluded that the president could not see the left side of the page. His seeming mistakes and confusion reflected his attempts to compensate. The authors also found evidence of similar behavior by FDR when he had read another speech for newsreel cameras. There are also several other reasons to suspect that Roosevelt had cancer: He appears to have made secret visits to at least two cancer specialists for evaluation of melanoma, possible prostate cancer, or both. He also lost more than 30 pounds during his last year of life. Although Bruenn suggested that the weight loss stemmed from dieting, Lomazow and Fettman believe that cancer—leading to abdominal pain and loss of appetite—makes more sense.

How plausible is this research?..

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Richard J. Garfunkel - 11/29/2009

I collect Rooseveltia and have many thousands of pieces of ephemera, books, and other political memorabilia of FDR. I have about 400 books and have been reading and writing about FDR for years. I host a show on the radio and had Dr. Goldsmith on 8/13/08. I had met him at Hyde Park. One can access the show at His book is quite interesting and speculation about FDR's health has been an ongoing item for discussion since his unfortunate death on April 12, 1945. The theory about Dr. Howard Bruenn and a medical cover-up has been also around for many years. Unfortunately his records were probably disposed of by Dr. Ross McIntire, his personal physician. It is certainly plausible that his weight loss could have come from cancer, but Dr. Bruenn cared for him for at least a year, and what motive would he have had for treating him for hypertension, and not much else? His daughter asked Admiral and Dr. McIntire for an outside evaluation. He was only an ear, nose and throat specialist, who worked on FDR's frequent sinus problems and Dr. Bruenn was called in. All the published reports by Bruenn seem consistent with treating FDR for hypertension. He stated, many times, that FDR never asked him for a diagnosis. Is that true? Who really knows. What is true for sure, FDR was quite secretive, and felt obligated to do his job to the end. Could some one else have done as well? That is idle speculation. He served the country to the end. His choice of Vice-President turned out quite well. But, I am sure, that if Harry Hopkins would have been well, FDR would have felt more comfortable with him as his successor. As to having a stroke, all the witnesses to his collapse and subsequent death seem to indicate that was what happened. Almost all saw him clasp the back of his head and say that he had a terrific head ache.

Richard J. Garfunkel
Host of the Advocates
WVOX 1460 AM radio