US President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, he was in the early stages of a deadly form of smallpox, a new study by two University of Texas researchers, has revealed.
Some historians, who recognized that Lincoln was ill, following his Gettysburg speech, asserted that the President was suffering from a very mild form of smallpox, one that occurs in previously immunized individuals.
However, his illness, researchers wrote in their study, was a far more serious form of smallpox that occurs in non-immunized people.
To reach to that conclusion, the researchers contrasted the clinical features of Lincoln's illness as cited in a host of sources with the manifestations of smallpox, of the milder form of smallpox that occurs in immunized people, and of the most common diseases with symptoms that mimic smallpox.
They found that only the serious form of smallpox, known as variola major, closely matched Lincolns clinical features.
"The serious form of smallpox, known as variola major, was the only disease that closely fit Lincoln's clinical features: high fever, weakness, severe pain in the head and back, prostration, skin eruption plus the severity and approximately 21-day duration of Lincoln's illness," said Dr. Armond S. Goldman, an emeritus professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB and lead author of the study.
"Smallpox was rampant in the United States at that time. In addition, although immunization against smallpox was practiced in the mid-19th century, there is no historical evidence that Lincoln was immunized against smallpox before his illness.
Moreover, the milder form of smallpox, known as variola minor, first appeared in the United States at the turn of the 20th century and was unknown in the United States during the mid-19th century when Lincoln became ill.
"Lincoln's physicians attempted to reassure him that his di
sease was a mild form of smallpox, but that may have been to prevent the public from fearing that Lincoln was dying, said Dr. Goldman.
While almost a third of those contracting this serious form of smallpox in the mid-19th century died, fortunately, Lincoln was able to return to his full duties only 25 days after the start of his illness, and lead the country to a successful conclusion in the Civil War of 1865, which led to a reunification of the North and South, and an end of slavery in the US.
According to a physician's contemporary account reported in the study, Lincoln retained his trademark wry and sometimes black sense of humor despite his illness.
The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Biography.
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