Skip to main content

Dr. Keen Makes Another Appearance

June 2024
1min read

Physician treated Cleveland, F.D.R.

Twenty-eight years later, at the age of 84, the surgeon who helped save President Cleveland appeared again at an important medical moment in the annals of the presidency, although he could not have known it at the time. In August, 1921, while vacationing nearby, Dr. William W. Keen was summoned to Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, as a consultant in diagnosing Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had, apparently, caught cold after extensive sailing, running, and swimming in the frigid Bay of Fundy. The second day Roosevelt lost the ability to move his legs, and Keen, examining him the third day, according to a letter from Mrs. Roosevelt (F.D.R.: His Personal Letters, Vol. II), concluded “that a clot of blood from a sudden congestion has settled in the lower spinal cord temporarily removing the power to move though not to feel.” He prescribed massage and predicted that recovery might “take some months.” Mrs. Roosevelt added, “He also sent his bill for $600!” As Roosevelt’s condition worsened over the next few days, Keen altered his diagnosis from a clot to a “lesion” in the spinal cord. It was some days before other doctors discovered that Roosevelt in fact had infantile paralysis, for which, of course, massage was the wrong treatment.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.