These are rousing times in the world of politics. As President-elect Donald Trump starts on his inauguration speech, GIANTmicrobes wants to advise him to acquire a comfortable hat, a thick coat and a bottle of clean filtered water. Trump does not want to follow in the footsteps of the 9th President of the United States, President William Henry Harrison. He holds a dubious distinction that will likely never be equaled: he was our shortest-serving president. In 1841, Harrison was 68 years old when he died of an infectious disease. But the microbe that did him in still remains unknown to this day. Was it rhinovirus, pneumonia, enteric fever, typhoid or some other bacteria or mysterious virus? Over the years historians have accepted the diagnosis of Harrison’s doctor: “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung, complicated by congestion of the liver.” Harrison got sick immediately after delivering the longest ever Inaugural Address in freezing rain without a hat, overcoat or gloves. Within days Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock. His doctors tried to help him with some opium, snakeweed, castor oil and of course leeches. He died on his 32nd day in office.
Recent epidemiological evidence makes it far more likely that Harrison's killer lurked in a stinking marsh near the White House.That heap of human waste would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and enteric (or paratyphoid) fever. Both can devastate the gut. Only 10 years after Harrison perished, two other Presidents - James Polk and Zachary Taylor - also had nasty gastroenteritis while in the White House. Polk recovered, but died of cholera only a few months after leaving office in 1849. Just a year later, Taylor died after only 16 months in office. Many suspected he died of typhoid fever or cholera, which occurred frequently in the 1800s when sewage systems were primitive.
The next time you visit Washington, D.C. you might want to wash your hands frequently and bring your own water. And good luck President Trump, but please remember: you may be leader of the most powerful nation, but microbes still rule the earth!