Saturday, December 27, 2014



West Palm Beach, Florida (JFK+50) President John F. Kennedy's long time back problems were not off limits to the White House press corps.  During a presidential news conference, JFK was asked "Mr. President, how is your aching back?"

President Kennedy's response was characteristically witty.  He said...

"It depends on the weather, political and otherwise."

Fifty-three years ago today, on December 27, 1961, the President had a physical examination while on vacation at his father's estate here in West Palm Beach. The official report indicated that JFK was "in excellent general health except for his back."  

While the American people were generally aware of JFK's back issues, they did not know the severity of them nor how much pain the President suffered on the occasions when the problems were most severe.

Robert Dalleck tells us that "between May 1955 and October 1957...(JFK) was secretly hospitalized nine times for a total of 44 days" mostly at New York Hospital.  "Terrible back pain" put him in the hospital for a whole week beginning on May 26, 1955.

JFK's medical records show "chronic abscess" at the site of his previous back surgeries and "muscle spasms in his lower left back."

Senator Kennedy was administered procaine shots, ultrasound treatments and hotpacks.

During JFK's presidency, White House physician Admiral George Burkley, concerned about the adverse effects of the shots and other treatments, consulted Austrian-born orthopedic surgeon Dr. Hans Kraus, who told him...

"If (JFK) continues the injections and does not begin regular exercise therapy to strengthen his back...he will become a cripple."

Dalleck says that the President agreed to begin exercise therapy and discontinue treatments previously prescribed by Dr. Janet Travell.  By January 1962, the President's back had improved so much that he was given a health report of "excellent."

Obviously, public knowledge of President Kennedy's medical history was a concern politically.  Presidential aide Kenneth O'Donnell ordered Drs. Travell and Burkley to turn all of the records over to the custody of JFK's personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln


"An Unfinished Life, John F. Kennedy 1917-1963," by Robert Dallek, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2003.

JFK in Rocking Chair with LBJ
September 17, 1963
Photo by Abbie Rowe, NPS
NARA Photo
White House Historical Association