John F. Kennedy, born 29 May 1917, was diagnosed with Addison's disease in 1947 aged 30 whilst in London. As the youngest man ever to be elected president of the United States, JFK is one of the most well-known public figures with Addison's. However at the time, the US President managed his Addison's disease and other autoimmune conditions in secret. Tragically assassinated on 22 November 1963 while campaigning for re-election, JFK’s complicated medical history was only revealed to the public years after his death.

Early beginnings

John F. Kennedy was born on 29 May 1917 and from a young age, his health complications were evident. His brother Robert said of him, "at least half of his days spent on this earth were days of intense pain." His mother said, "he was a rather frail little boy" after nearly dying of scarlet fever aged three. "Almost all his life, it seemed, he had to battle against misfortunes of health," she said. 

Managing his health

John F. Kennedy's family and advisors were able to keep his medical history virtually secret. JFK was portrayed as healthy and vibrant however in reality, he suffered various problems controlled by a daily regimen of drugs and supported by expert doctors.

By 1940, JFK developed osteoporosis in his back which gave him excruciating pain and his first spinal operation was performed in 1944. A few years later, in 1947, at the age of 30, while a US Congressman, JFK was secretly diagnosed with Addison’s disease by Sir Daniel Day in Harley Street, London. In present day, doctors who have gained familiarity with JFK's medical records have determined that the most appropriate over-arching diagnosis for his multiple endocrine complications is autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 2 (APS 2).

Now with his Addison's diagnosis, a further two spinal operations were performed in 1954 and yet another in 1955, all of which were closely monitored by doctors to ensure he had sufficient cortisol replacement throughout. Despite several surgeries, his back pain from osteoporosis remained and accounts suggest that he was frequently on crutches and couldn’t bend down or tie his shoelaces. He had chronic pain all the way to the White House. 

Becoming president

Despite his health complications, JFK ran for presidential office and, at the age of 43, became the 35th US President. He was the youngest man ever to be elected president of the United States. 

During the 1960 campaign, JFK's opponents often raised his rumoured health issues and Addison’s, to try and undermine his campaign and ability to be president. This led to his brother Robert F. Kennedy releasing a cleverly worded statement, according to historical reports, noting that his brother, “does not now nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease, which is a tuberculose [sic] destruction of the adrenal gland”. Due to this consistent denial of any ill health, the matter was dropped and JFK managed to keep his health out of sight of cameras and the media - but in private his complications were evident. 

A close aide recounts that JFK, "used and carried with him around the country, more pills, potions, poultices and other paraphernalia than would be found in a small dispensary." There are also reports that the Kennedy family sensibly kept cortisone in safety deposit boxes around the country, so that JFK would have ready access to these medications wherever he travelled; his very own #ShareYourKit

Tragically on 22 November 1963, President JFK was assassinated while campaigning for re-election. 

Only one day's illness in three years

In nearly three years of office in the White House, it is reported JFK missed only one day’s work because of illness despite having one of the most complicated medical histories of anyone who ever held office. This shows the secret support JFK received for his medical struggles, the extent of which we will never fully know. Ironically, JFK's famous suntan was not the sign of a physically fit man who spent time outdoors, but a symptom of his Addison's.

However some insight has been provided into how JFK managed his health with the demands of being President. According to The New York Times, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the president was prescribed, “antispasmodics to control colitis; antibiotics for a urinary infection; and increased amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone along with salt tablets to control his adrenal insufficiency and boost his energy.” Those of us living with Addison's and adrenal insufficiency now would acknowledge this as 'up-dosing' per the Sick Day Rules to account for the extra psychological stress.

President John F. Kennedy achieved considerable political stature during his time in office and is known for his signing of the nuclear test ban treaty with Russia in 1963. His involvement in the Vietnam fiasco was a major thorn in his side, which he referred to as ‘the worst problem I’ve got’. He also helped to get Martin Luther King released from jail following his civil rights activities in Georgia. The U.S. economy was improving, civil rights laws were on the agenda and the American space programme had begun. 


One characteristic of autoimmune diseases (such as Addison’s) is that close relatives often are affected as well and this is true in the case of the Kennedy family. JFK's younger sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver also had Addison’s, and John F. Kennedy Jr., his son, suffered from Graves’ disease, in which the thyroid is overactive.

Addison's Disease Day

As a charity and community, we celebrate #AddisonsDiseaseDay on the 29th May, the birthday of President John F. Kennedy.
His birthday is arguably the most fitting date for us to celebrate the achievements of people with Addison’s and adrenal insufficiency everywhere.
On our Famous Lives page you can learn more about those in the public eye living with Addison's and adrenal insufficiency.

Mandel LR, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2009; doi:10.7326/0003-4819-151-5-200909010-00011.

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