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ELLEN WILSON: THE THIRD AND LAST FIRST LADY TO DIE IN THE WHITE HOUSE

Ellen Axson Wilson was the first of President Woodrow Wilson’s (1913-1921) two wives. Ellen Wilson died on August 6, 1914. Her death devastated and profoundly depressed the president to the extent that he became unfocused and indecisive in the presidency, in significant contrast to his determined and brisk decision-making of his early presidency. Wilson was absent from both policy making and helpful intervention that may have tempered the rush to battle during the early days of World War I.

Ellen Wilson was a saintly wife and mother. A Georgian by birth, this daughter of a Presbyterian minister at age twenty-five married the twenty-eight year old political science professor Woodrow Wilson in 1885. Ellen attended to all her husband’s needs – practical, personal and romantic. Woodrow was a brilliant scholar who rapidly ascended the academic ladder from Bryn Mawr to Wesleyan to Princeton University where he rose from Professor to its President. Wilson also gave lectures at Johns Hopkins University, presented speeches widely, and published extensively. Ellen gave herself completely to Woodrow academic career – typed his articles, listened as he practiced his lectures, and kept him isolated from both household duties and child care interruptions.

She was pregnant three times and presented her husband with three lovely daughters – Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor. Her husband was a high strung, very anxious, needy, self centered, rigid, and self consciously pious individual. His saintly wife did not want her pregnancies and deliveries to upset, bother, or worry him. Consequently, she traveled during the third semester of her first and second pregnancies. from the North to her Aunt Louise’s home in rural Georgia. Twice she was toxemic.  Ellen was very prepared for her third delivery. She selected a homeopathic obstetrician in nearby Connecticut. Dr. Mary Florence Taft later became a Professor of Obstetrics, and ironically she was the cousin of President William Howard Taft whom years later Wilson defeated for the presidency.

The consequences to Ellen Wilson’s health from toxemia of pregnancy were severe. She suffered with chronic kidney failure, then known as Bright’s Disease. It’s symptoms were vague and its diagnosis was long delayed. Moreover, Admiral Cary Grayson, the presidential couple’s White House Physician, even after he finally made a diagnosis, did not want to alarm Wilson, since the psychological well being of the somewhat emotionally unstable president was his paramount responsibility, even at the expense of the First Lady’s health. Consequently, President Wilson was not made aware of the severity of Ellen’s condition until a few days before her demise.

Wilson was devastated. He went into a listless depression. It became the duty of Grayson to “fix up” his medical charge with a new woman. In this the doctor was successful.

 

 

 

Lud Historian
ludmhist@comcast.net
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