Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Which U.S. Presidents Had Malaria?

February 20, 2012

Most people now know that George Washington never chopped down that cherry tree, but they don't know that he had malaria. In fact, malaria was quite common in Virginia in colonial times. George Washington first contracted malaria at age 17 in Virginia, and while he did not die from the disease he suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life. 

Illinois native Abraham Lincoln also got the disease while growing up.

Malaria has not been endemic in the United States since 1951 so it’s easy to forget about it, but those malaria-carrying mosquitoes used to infect people in the south, the mid-west, and parts of the East Coast. Malaria was so prevalent in Washington D.C in the late 1800s there was even a short-lived movement to erect a giant screen around the city – a sort of city-wide bed net.  That would have been quite an undertaking.

At least eight U.S. Presidents are believed to have contracted malaria during their lifetime, including Washington and Lincoln:

  • James Monroe got malaria when he visited a particularly swampy area of the Mississippi river. Bouts of the disease flared up for years afterwards.
  • Andrew Jackson contracted malaria while on the Seminole military campaigns in Florida.
  • Ulysses S. Grant suffered from frequent bouts of malaria in the late 1850s while living on a farm outside of St. Louis.  
  • James A. Garfield acquired malaria at age 16 in Ohio.
  • Theodore Roosevelt came down with malaria after a visit to the Amazon rainforest. Although the bout did not kill him he returned to the US weakened physically and spent many years in his bed.
  • John F. Kennedy contracted malaria while in the Solomon Islands during World World II where he served as a PT boat captain.

In 2005, another George, President George W. Bush, started the US President’s Malaria Initiative to help protect vulnerable populations and help relive poverty on the African continent. This crucial effort continues today under the Obama administration. 

The President’s Malaria Initiative is seeing tremendous success, including:

  • Protecting more than 27 million people by using indoor residual spraying to keep malaria-carrying mosquitos out of homes.
  • Delivering more than 67 million anti-malarial treatments since the initiative began in 2005.
  • Distributing more than 30 million life saving bed nets.

What can you do to help? We must continue to support effective aid that can lead to better lives. If you would like to learn more about what the US President’s Malaria Initiative is doing now to fight malaria, visit their website here.

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