According to James Bear and Dr. Gordon Jones in their unpublished study of Thomas Jefferson's medical history, the "rheumatism" that Jefferson suffered from was probably osteo-arthritis.
In September 1794, when he was fifty-one years old, Jefferson complained in a letter to Edmund Randolph of "a paroxysm of the Rheumatism, which has now kept me for ten days in constant torment and presents no hope of abatement." By late November, the "remarkeably obstinate" attack had abated enough to allow Jefferson "to ride about my farm." Other episodes are mentioned in Jefferson's correspondence in May 1797, July 1802, February 1803, and January 1812. In August 1813, writing to Abigail Adams, Jefferson sympathized with her suffering from rheumatism: "I have had more of it myself latterly than at any former period."
1818 was a painful year for Jefferson. In late February, he found himself "suffering under an attack of rheumatism" that limited letter-writing until early March. In August, pain struck in the knee as he was arriving at Warm Springs to take the waters. Rather than curing him, the baths caused boils to erupt which may have developed into septicemia, leaving Jefferson prostrate until late December. The following August, Jefferson described "the severest attack of rheumatism I have ever experienced. my limbs all swelled, their strength prostrate, & pain constant." In a letter of August 24, 1819, to his daughter Martha, Jefferson described still feeling the effects of "the most serious attack of that disease I ever had. while too weak to set up the whole day, and afraid to increase the weakness by lying down." This episode continued into October. Shortly after that, Jefferson began bandaging his swollen legs from the toe to the knee. This symptom he later described as beginning to "threaten dropsy" and again limiting his mobility.
By this time, the wrist Jefferson dislocated in Paris had become so stiff as to practically curtail his ability to write. In a letter to Albert Gallatin, Jefferson described "a wrist & fingers almost without joints." This condition was exacerbated the next month by a fracture in his left forearm. No other specific references to arthritic conditions appear in James Bear's medical chronology.
- KKO, 3/30/1992
1787. (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia). "The matter with which these waters [springs] is allied is very volatile; its smell indicates it to be sulphureous, as also does the circumstance of its turning silver black. They relieve rheumatisms."
1808 November 1. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "[A]s soon as my attak of rheumatism came on, I applied flannel to the part, & toasted a great deal before the fire. it carried it off compleatly in four days, and I am persuaded the attack at Monticello might have been shortened in the same way had it been suspected to be rheumatism."
1818 August 7. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "[A]n attack of rheumatism in the knee yesterday, without retarding my journey, affects my walking."
1818 August 14. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "[H]aving no symptom to judge by at what time I may presume the seeds of my rheumatism eradicated ... I believe I shall yeild to the general advice of a three weeks course."
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