The Rise of John F. Kennedy: The Unhealthy Early Life of the Youngest Elected President

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John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, born to a life of privilege, suffered from great medical problems through much of his life, but certainly found success nonetheless.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1917, John F. Kennedy was the son of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. – a prominent businessman and politician (who would later serve briefly as Ambassador to the United Kingdom prior to World War II) – and Rose Fitzgerald (whose maiden name was given to the boy as a middle name). They were a wealthy family and lived high-class life throughout Kennedy’s childhood.

John F. Kennedy (often known simply by his initials – JFK) was the second of nine Kennedy children (his older brother, Joe Jr. would be killed in World War II, while his younger brothers Robert and Edward would later both enter politics – Robert was assassinated in 1968 while Edward – “Ted” – remains a Senator untill 2009).

JFK’s early life would see him living in and attending various schools in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, and undergoing several severe hospitalizations even as a boy.

The Poor Health of JFK

Often, when John F. Kennedy is remembered today, it is as a young, healthy, war hero President with a winning smile. Often forgotten are the very severe, almost debilitating medical conditions which remained with this young man throughout much of his tragically short life.

At the age of 13, Kennedy came down with appendicitis and was forced to leave school in order to recover from his appendectomy. While attending the Choate school in Connecticut at 17 he became terribly ill, lost a dangerous amount of weight, and spent several months in the hospital in New Haven. That same June, Kennedy spent nearly a month at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota being evaluated for a gastro-intestinal condition called colitis.

The next year (1935), after finally graduating from the Choate School (being voted “Most Likely to Become President”), as he was attending the London School of Economics, Kennedy was hospitalized yet again, this time for a bout with jaundice. Returning to America and enrolling in Princeton University later that year, Kennedy was hospitalized yet again in fear that he had Leukemia.

World War II

In 1936, JFK enrolled at Harvard University, from which he would graduate with honors in 1940 with a degree in International Affairs. During those college years (which also happened to be the years leading up to America’s involvement in World War II), Kennedy spent much time traveling through Europe (where his father had become Ambassador), and was in England when the debate arose regarding whether or not to go to war with Germany (who had just invaded Poland).

After finishing at Harvard, Kennedy volunteered to join the U.S. Army even before America’s official involvement in the war (he tried to join in the Spring of 1941 but was rejected because of back problems, but was accepted in September of that year).

When the war broke out, Kennedy trained to work on torpedo boats, and was eventually stationed in the Pacific theater as a boat commander, having risen to the rank of Lieutenant.

One of the most trying days of young Kennedy’s life occurred on August 2, 1943, when his boat, the Pt-109 was sunk near the Solomon Islands after being struck by a Japanese destroyer. Despite injuring his bad back even further, Kennedy famously swam himself and others to a nearby island, thereby saving their lives (after losing two of his crewmembers).

Rightly recieved as a hero, Kennedy then finished his service and was honorably discharged only months before the end of the war in the Pacific.

Entry into Politics

JFK had never given much thought to a political career – his brother Joe had always been the one with such aspirations in his family. With Joe’s death in the war, however, John, now 28, had become the “political heir” to his family.

The very year after leaving the army, 1946, Kennedy ran for a newly-vacated seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a district in Massachusetts, easily winning the election on the strength of his heroism in the war and his family name.

Though he had been elected as a Democrat, Kennedy did not always vote strictly along party lines, but often found himself in disagreement with the leaders of his own party, such as then-President Truman. Nevertheless, his popularity continued to grow, and in 1952 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s medical issues which had so inhibited him as a young man had not yet waned. While he was in Congress, he had been diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, which is a disorder of the endocrine system. In addition, soon after becoming a Senator, JFK found himself undergoing a series of spinal operations, during which he came very near death.

It was while he was recovering from these operations that Kennedy found the time to write his famous, Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage – the stories of eight Senators who had defied leadership or popular opinion to stand by their beliefs and values.

The Presidential Election of 1960

After having won reelection handily in 1958 – and after marrying his wife Jacqueline in 1957 – Kennedy announced his decision to run for President in the 1960 election. He had in the previous election been runner up to the nomination for Vice President, which had gained him a certain amount of national recognition.

It was a long, hard fight for the Democratic nomination that year, but Kennedy was victorious in the end, over Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas (who would become his Vice President).

In the general election, facing Richard Nixon of California, the race featured the first ever nationally televised Presidential debates, and in the end saw Kennedy eke out one of the narrowest victories in American history, making him the youngest man ever elected President of the United States.