Nellie Taft: Her Stroke and Her Doctors

Nellie Taft, was the wife of the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft. Since being a White House guest at the age of sixteen, she employed her impressive intelligence, executive skill and persistence towards a return to the White House as its mistress. She saw in her neighbor, fiancé and later husband the character, intelligence and ability to become a successful president. Over her years of marriage she deftly guided and steered Will Taft away from his preferred judicial goals towards her preferred executive positions. She was successful and William Howard Taft was inaugurated president in March, 1909.

This accomplishment was only the most prominent of many others. She was the founder of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; the culturally ground-breaking wife of the American administrator of the Philippines; the one who introduced the Japanese cherry trees to Washington’s Tidal Basin; the first First Lady to publish her memoirs; and the first First Lady to attend a national nominating convention of the opposing political party.

Small wonder that Nellie successfully guided and prodded the genial Will towards the Oval Office.

Once ensconced in her White House chambers, Nellie decided that her next goal was the cultural transformation of the White House and Washington D.C. This was thwarted ten short weeks into her tenure by a significant stroke on May 17th, 1909. A background of cigarette smoking, significant stress, and a positive family history had made her vulnerable. The stroke caused muscular weakness of her right arm and leg, but this quickly normalized. Tragically her loss of speech did not. This intelligent, previously articulate and extremely forceful First Lady became unable to converse, direct others or issue instructions.

Nellie Taft suffered from apraxia of speech. The term apraxia comes from the Greek root “praxis,” meaning the performance of action or skilled movement. Adding the prefix “a”, means absence. Stroke related apraxia may regress spontaneously, but for Mrs. Taft, it regressed only slowly and with considerable effort. Her recovery was briefly set back by a similar, but weaker, stroke two years later.

It was only with constant and intense verbal therapy that Nellie improved. This consisted of repeating over and over the words spoken to her. Her therapists were her sister, her daughter, and the president. Her White House Physician, Major Matthew Delaney of the Army Medical Corps, supervised her treatment. Delaney also attempted to stimulate her speech by applying electrotherapy to her throat.

Dr. Delaney was young (about thirty tears old) for a physician tasked with the care of the president and his wife. He graduated from the renowned University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1900 and immediately joined the Army Medical Corps. In 1909, the newly inaugurated Taft decided not to reappoint Admiral Presley Rixey, the long time physician to his two immediate predecessors. He opted for an Army man instead. Ironically Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, reverted to the navy with his appointment as his doctor, Lieutenant Cary Grayson, a protégé of Rixey.

Delaney had a successful professional career, became a Brigadier General, and served as post surgeon at West Point and Assistant Surgeon General of the US Army. He remained William Taft’s personal doctor while Taft was Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

White House Physicians almost always consult with prominent civilian specialists whenever they are confronted with a significant medical problem. Delaney chose well; his consultant was Dr. Lewellys F. Barker from the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. Barker was the second chairman of this institution’s Department of Medicine. The first chairman had been Dr. William Osler.

Nellie Taft eventually recovered enough speech to enjoy a fulfilling and happy post-White House life that lasted into her eighties. Her physicians did for her just as well as doctors would for similarly disabled patients one hundred years later.

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