Infectious diseases killed three out of four of Lincoln’s sons

April 8, 2024- by Steven E. Greer, MD

I watch this History Channel series on Abraham Lincoln from 2022, and it made me look into the fate of his children. He had four sons. All but one died of what seems to be infectious diseases. Even while Lincoln was in the White House (i.e., a very safe place), one of his sons died from contaminated water (e. coli) and typhoid fever. Of course, all of those hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Civil War mostly died from bacterial infections as well (i.e., not directly from the bullets or cannon wounds).

Bacterial infections back then were quite the killer. Typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague, tuberculous, gangrene, etc. are rarely seen now. I find this fascinating as a doctor. What a different world it was.

Making matters worse, if you did not die from an infection, you were at risk of being killed by doctors doing the barbaric act of draining your blood for no reason. I wrote about that before. Very few historians and doctors know about bloodletting. It was the main therapy of quacks for a 1,000 years, up until about 1900.

Stop and ponder this if you will. If you are reading this, then you are alive. But how? Your ancestors survived those tough odds. My ancestors come from Kentucky and rural America before that (the early colonies). How the hell did they survive?

I, like most people, have never considered how lucky we are to be alive given the steep odds against surviving our ancestors face. This is why most cultures respect elders. They are why the young people are alive.

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