Illness ravaged the Nixon family and deeply wounded young Richard. Tuberculosis, an ancient scourge that antibiotics finally conquered during Nixon’s adulthood … first touched Richard when he was ten. An X-ray showed a shadow on his lung that a local physician interpreted as possible tuberculosis. For five years, the doctors forbade him to play sports, although when the problem did not progress, they concluded that the finding was a false alarm—likely a scar from a pneumonia that Nixon had at age four. The X-ray technology of the day made such misdiagnoses common. Richard was exposed to tuberculosis throughout his childhood, so he probably did harbor some TB in his chest; the germs often take up residence and lie dormant for decades.
Two years later, tuberculosis struck for real. Nixon’s younger brother, seven-year-old Arthur, grew weak and feverish. He stopped eating. As his health declined, a local physician, Dr. H. P. Wilson, called in a specialist, who performed a spinal tap—a procedure that involves inserting a needle into the spinal column through the spaces between the bones of the lower back and extracting a small amount of the fluid that bathes the spinal cord. This remains the standard approach to diagnosing infections in and around the brain. Doctors examine the fluid under a microscope and use special stains to search for bacteria that might be causing an infection and the kinds of symptoms that afflicted Arthur. Tuberculosis shows up as microscopic red rods when stained with the dye. That’s what the doctors saw in Arthur’s fluid. Today, antibiotics can fight the disease, but in 1925 there was no treatment. Arthur died after awakening long enough to recite a sad little prayer: “If I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.”
Although Frank Nixon, Richard’s father, truculently refused an autopsy, the doctors labeled the cause of death tubercular encephalitis, which meant that the tuberculosis bacterium had actually invaded the brain. When Arthur died, Nixon allegedly saw his father cry for the first time. Twelve-year-old Richard was himself being monitored for a tuberculosis infection, and one can only imagine the sense of dread he must have felt. Certainly the event had a profound effect on him. He became more withdrawn and developed a driving ambition to make up, somehow, for Arthur’s loss.
Excerpted from The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). Copyright (c) 2009 by the Regents of the University of California.