Medical Problems

Jack's lack of academic distinction was far from the only disappointment for Joe. Jack had long-term medical problems that were a source of concern and frustration for Joe. He wanted his boys to be the best at everything in life. Jack's slight frame and his medical problems were a constant reminder of his son's physical failings.

From the age of two years, Jack's medical troubles had plagued the Kennedy family. When he was nearly three, he came down with a serious case of scarlet fever. He spent two months in the hospital and two weeks at a Maine sanatorium. His parents were almost certain he was going to die. It was such a difficult time that Joe Kennedy put his work aside in order to spend time at church praying for his son's recovery. Joe prayed that if his son was spared death, he would donate money to the church. Jack recovered and Joe did as he promised. However, Jack was soon plagued by numerous other medical ailments.


“Dad persuaded us to work hard at whatever we did. We soon learned that competition in the family was a kind of dry run for the world outside. At the same time, everything channeled into public service. There just wasn't any point in going into business.” — Time magazine, Dec. 2, 1957

By the time Jack reached Canterbury, his health was still a problem. An undiagnosed illness caused him to lose six pounds from his already slight frame. He felt tired, dizzy, and weak. On one occasion, he collapsed and was luckily caught by the headmaster. His condition continued to worsen, and he began to experience abdominal pains, which were diagnosed as appendicitis.

At Choate, his medical condition deteriorated. On several occasions he was confined to the infirmary. It was mostly due to colds, but an unusual urine sample was noted in one instance. By his second and third year, his ailments were marked by common occurrences such as the flu, knee pain, and all-over body pain. Once, Jack was taken to New Haven Hospital, where it was determined that he had hives and was suffering from weight loss. It was also believed that he was possibly suffering from leukemia.


Spastic colitis is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes abnormal gut contractions. The symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. The condition is characterized by its tendency to disappear and reappear over time. It is treatable with a change in diet, exercise, and medication.

Through all of the medical tests, the hospital stays, and the poking and prodding, there was one thing that Jack learned was expected of him as a Kennedy: he was not to complain. Through it all, even during his junior year at Choate in June 1934 when he was sent to the Mayo clinic and then St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, he quietly endured the discomfort of his undiagnosed illness and the numerous tests. During this stay, doctors initially believed that he was suffering from peptic ulcer disease but later concluded it was spastic colitis. Jack was placed on a strict diet of rice and potatoes. Despite the new diet, his condition continued to go downhill. Jack spent the remaining school years in and out of the hospital.

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