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A Kennedy Biographer Assesses the Dallek Disclosures

HNN: The JFK Medical Files

Rarely has a story about a forthcoming history book had such a stunning effect as did the Sunday front page New York Times article detailing material in President John F. Kennedy's medical files opened to the researcher Robert Dallek.

In an age demanding heroes, here was JFK standing naked before us, his body punctured by the ravages of disease. All the unseemly revelations and revisionist scars were miraculously gone, and Americans saw John F. Kennedy anew, a brave, solitary figure standing up against the brutally unfair onslaughts of ill health and disease.

Most of this medical history had already been explored or speculated upon in a series of books in the last two decades. What was new was the overwhelming detail, the dramatic context, and the sense that finally here was the full, unmitigated truth. As important as it is that the Kennedy Library is finally opening up these files, if only to one select researcher, they offer a skewed, incomplete picture of Kennedy's health and his medical life in the White House.

Last year in my book, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, I had the first time use of the material that Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, secreted away when she left the White House. This is precisely the kind of material that probably would have been excised before reaching the Kennedy Library.

In November 1961, Dr. Eugene Cohen wrote President Kennedy an extraordinary letter warning him about injections filled with amphetamines that he was receiving from Dr. Max Jacobson.

''You cannot be permitted to receive therapy from irresponsible doctors like M.J. who by forms of stimulating injections offer some temporary help to neurotic or mentally ill individuals ... this therapy conditions one's needs almost like a narcotic, is not for responsible individuals who at any split second may have to decide the fate of the universe.''

Cohen, who had been Kennedy's endocrinologist since 1956, was worried about ministrations that risked addicting the president. A bill in the Lincoln files shows that Jacobson was seeing the president roughly once a week.

Beyond that, the doctor gave favored patients doses that they could inject themselves. Many of his patients returned repeatedly delighted at the bounce they had in their steps when they left his office, but others ended up ravaged, emotionally destroyed when they tried to stop the injections.

Cohen and his colleague Dr. George Burkley were also worried about Dr. Janet Travell, the White House doctor, and considered her an incompetent egomaniac. They believed that the Novocain injections she used to treat Kennedy's back pain were extremely dangerous, pushing him to the use of narcotics to relieve the pain. Cohen warned Kennedy about Travell as someone ''who is a potential threat to your well-being.''

As for Kennedy's overall health, Cohen admonished the president: ''The program requires constant sacrifice on your part not only in the present but in the future.''

I confirmed these letters and this account with Cohen's sister and two of his medical associates and ended up convinced that Cohen was a hero whose concern was not only Kennedy's health but the health of the nation.

Although Travell was pushed aside as the White House doctor at the end of 1961, her treatments apparently did not end. Nor did Kennedy stop seeing Jacobson. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, became so worried that in June 1962 he had the FBI examine vials of Jacobson's mysterious injections. The New York doctor continued to see the president, giving him the kinds of medication that would later see him barred from medical practice.

Kennedy had his own heroic qualities in his refusal to live life as a semi-invalid. He was also in some ways a willful, reckless man who took chances with his health, in his personal life, and with the nation. Although Kennedy acted magnificently during the Cuban missile crisis, it is absurd to suggest that his illnesses and amphetamine use had no impact on his presidency.

President Kennedy made his own choices. We can only ask ourselves what kind of president he would have been if had listened to Cohen, gotten rid of Jacobson, stopped taking Novocain injections, and attempted to deal with his health in other ways.

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe and is reprinted with permission of the author.