Ask Taft: Is Obesity a Disease?

Long before the AMA decided obesity is a complex, chronic disease, our 27th President and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Taft, sought treatment for obesity from an obesity medicine physician. In 1905, Taft hired British physician Daniel Yorke-Davies out of concern for the effect obesity might have on his health and his career. At the time, Taft was serving as Secretary of War for President Theodore Roosevelt.

Deborah Levine, an assistant professor of health policy at Providence College, has published a detailed history of the relationship between Taft and Yorke-Davies in the new issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Says Levine:

This correspondence is one of the few archival collections documenting physician and patient perspectives on the treatment of obesity, which took place at an auspicious moment in the development of a professional medical approach to obesity. During this period, obesity came to be framed as a condition necessitating close medical management to limit the risk for reduced pulmonary function, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.

It was also a time when weight bias became firmly rooted in our culture. Although extremes of body weight have always raised concerns, it was in the early 20th century that a person’s weight began to be taken as an “outward indicator of the health, vitality, self-control, and discipline required to succeed,” according to Levine.

Taft lost 59 of his 315 pounds with the help of Yorke-Davies and then gained it all back. He endured intense scrutiny and ridicule about his weight. Years after he was president, Taft finally lost a substantial amount of weight and kept it off — with the help of a different doctor.

We’ve learned a great deal about obesity in the century since then. But reading this history, it’s clear that much has yet to change.

Click here to read more from NPR and here to read Levine’s publication.

Taft Campaign Poster, image © leiris202 / flickr

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