“Heart Attack Strikes Ike,” President Eisenhower’s 1955 Medical Emergency in Colorado

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives in Denver.

Today the University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus provides state of the art medical care while teaching the next generation of medical professionals. Taking over the former Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado upon its closure in the 1990s, the school and the facilities are firmly entrenched in modern medicine with one notable exception: a suite of rooms on the eighth floor of Building 500, once the centerpiece of the army hospital and now the administrative center for the campus. These three rooms have been meticulously restored to be frozen in time, 1955 to be exact, when the entire country’s eyes were upon the hospital and its famous patient: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the time of its completion in 1941, Building 500 at the Fitzsimons Army Hospital was the largest building in the state, and two years later was even the birthplace of current Secretary of State John Kerry. But in the historical files turned over to the National Archives at Denver upon the hospital’s closure, it is clear the biggest event in the hospital’s tenure was President Eisenhower’s heart attack and subsequent convalescence. It is from the series, “Historical Records, 1918 – 1996” found in Record Group 338: Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter) where photographs, books, and newspaper clippings all come together to tell the story of the president’s unexpected hospital stay.

Eisenhower’s ties to Colorado ran deep, largely through Mamie who first moved to Denver in 1905 at the age of nine with her family. The couple was married in Denver at the Doud family home and son John was also born in the city. The state, and his in-laws’ home where they would stay, became a getaway of sorts for the couple even after he became president, as was the case in August of 1955.

Eisenhower flew into Denver on August 14th, 1955, for what he was calling a “work and play” vacation until October. The work part would take place at Lowry Air Force Base in eastern Denver, also since closed and turned into a residential neighborhood, and the play would be either fishing at the Byers Peak Ranch in the Rocky Mountains or golfing on the many courses in the Denver area.

Ike Prior to Heart Attack

“President Eisenhower puts on golf gloves as he leaves Officers Open Mess, August 25, 1955, with Maj. Gen. Martin E. Griffin.”

It turned out to be on a golf course where some historians and medical experts now surmise his heart attack actually began. Feeling ill after a round of golf at the Cherry Hills Golf Club in southern Denver, he returned to the Doud home and turned in early on the evening of September 23rd. Awaking to chest pains in the early morning of September 24th, his personal physician was summoned and worked to relieve Eisenhower’s discomfort. Hours later, a delay scrutinized since, a cardiac specialist was summoned from Fitzsimons Army Hospital to conduct an electrocardiogram which confirmed the suspicion; the president had suffered a massive heart attack. Eisenhower was whisked away to the hospital in a secret service car.

Admission Card Reproduction

Reproduction of hospital admission card, September 24, 1955.

Ike's Room

Photograph of President Eisenhower’s 8th floor hospital room, taken November 15, 1955 after he was released.

The White House announced the hospitalization shortly thereafter, though the severity of the attack was softened at first, and the press understandably swarmed the hospital for any news or photographs they could get.

As cardiac experts were flown in to help in assessing the president’s condition, likewise family members, a parade of cabinet members, and even foreign dignitaries made the trek to Colorado.

Given the possible length of the president’s convalescence, First Lady Mamie moved into an adjoining suite at the hospital, decorated in all pink for her (our records note that the pink toilet seat was even saved, sent to the Army Medical Museum at Fort Sam Houston). Every day she appeared on a balcony to wave and greet any assembled well-wishers, attempted to respond to the numerous get well cards and gifts that began to arrive, and attended post functions.

Gifts and more gifts arrived for the president, which in turn he is said to have largely turned over to hospital personnel or the NCO and officers’ messes. One gift in particular was a horseshoe sent by Bruce Kinney from Los Angeles. Eisenhower had it hung above his door during his stay and after his discharge had it mounted and returned to the hospital, hoping to transfer the good luck he had to every other patient who arrived at the hospital. Gifts weren’t limited to artifacts: a tour script for the 8th floor and Eisenhower suite found in our holdings even notes that when it was reported Eisenhower would be charged $51.75 for his meals while at the hospital, offers to pay the tab flooded the hospital.

One gift that he did use was a set of maroon pajamas with “Much Better Thanks” embroidered on the left pocket. These were given to him on his October 14th birthday by the White House Press Corps and were his uniform of choice, along with a western necktie, when he made his first public appearance on October 25, 1955. The pajamas also featured five stars on each collar, denoting his previous Army rank, but in the photographs from that day a sixth gold star appears in the center. That extra star was a gift from Dr. Paul White, given to him for “good conduct.”

On November 11th, Armistice Day, President Eisenhower was released from Fitzsimons Army Hospital. Boarding the Columbine III, Columbine being his favored name for personal planes as a nod to the Colorado state flower, he gave a few brief words of thanks and closed with, “So I leave with my heart unusually filled with gratefulness, to Denver, to the people here, to the locality – in fact to everyone who has been so kind. And I hope that those people who have sent in messages – and Mrs. Eisenhower has not been able to reach them all; she did her best – that they will know, through this little talk, that we are eternally thankful to them. Goodbye and good luck.”

Ike With Doctors

According to the caption, before his discharge President Eisenhower requested this photograph to be taken of him along with his personal physician and the military doctors who cared for him while at Fitzsimons. From left to right behind President Eisenhower: Major General Howard Snyder, Lt. Colonel John Sheedy, Colonel Byron Pollock, Colonel George Powell, and Major General Martin Griffin.


Sources:

All photographs along with supporting details come from the series Historical Records, 1918 – 1996” (National Archives identifier 607674), Record Group 338: Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter) at the National Archives at Denver. This includes a 1969 book published by the Associated Press entitled “Dwight D. Eisenhower; a Gauge of Greatness” by Relman Morin. Additional details were supplied by “Eisenhower’s 1955 Heart Attack: Medical Treatment, Political Effects, and the ‘Behind the Scenes’ Leadership Style” by Robert E. Gilbert, Politics and Life Sciences 27:1 (2008). Text of President Eisenhower’s remarks at Lowry Air Force Base were supplied by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, “Dwight D. Eisenhower 235 – Remarks on Leaving Denver, Colorado. November 11, 1955”

For further reading about President Eisenhower visit the President Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home.

 

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