GALVESTON, Texas Many school children in the United States memorize President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, considered one of history's most brilliant speeches and a model of brevity and persuasive rhetoric.
But according to two medical researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, most historians have failed to recognize that when Lincoln delivered it on Nov. 19, 1863, he was in the early stages of a life-threatening illness a serious form of smallpox. Their report appears in the current issue of Journal of Medical Biography, a scholarly quarterly published by the Royal Society of Medicine Press in London (www.rsmpress.co.uk/jmb.htm).
Almost a third of those contracting this serious form of smallpox in the mid-19th century died, the researchers said.
Some of those historians who recognized that Lincoln was ill following his Gettysburg speech asserted that he was suffering from a very mild form of smallpox, one that occurs in previously immunized individuals, the researchers wrote. However, the researchers ascertained that his illness was the far more serious form of smallpox that occurs in non-immunized people.
To reach that conclusion, the researchers contrasted the clinical features of Lincoln's illness as cited in a host of sources with the manifestations of smallpox, of the milder form of smallpox that occurs in immunized people and of the most common diseases with symptoms that mimic smallpox.
"The serious form of smallpox, known as variola major, was the only disease that closely fit Lincoln's clinical features: high fever, weakness, severe pain in the head and back, prostration, skin eruption plus the severity and approximately 21-day duration of Lincoln's illness," said Dr. Armond S. Goldman, an emeritus professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB and lead author of the study.