Health and Science

Trump isn't the first sitting U.S. president to contract a potentially deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic — so did Woodrow Wilson in 1918

Key Points
  • Trump tweeted overnight that he and the first lady tested positive for the coronavirus. 
  • Former President Woodrow Wilson became ill with the 1918 flu when he was in Paris in April 1919. 
  • For Wilson, the virus "took its toll on him," said Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian at the University of Michigan.
Portrait of Woodrow Wilson seated at his White House desk in 1919.
Bettmann | Getty Images

President Donald Trump announced Friday that he has tested positive for Covid-19, and he isn't the first sitting president to contract a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic.

Former President Woodrow Wilson became ill with the 1918 flu when he was in Paris in April 1919 organizing a peace treaty and the League of Nations following World War I. 

Wilson wasn't a healthy man and "always frail," said Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian at the University of Michigan. He would go on to have symptoms such as headache, high fever, cough and runny nose, Markel said. Many of Wilson's aides would also contract the flu, including his chief of staff, he added.

Trump tweeted overnight that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the White House confirmed that aide Hope Hicks had tested positive and had some symptoms. 

Trump was experiencing "mild symptoms" after testing positive for the coronavirus, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows confirmed to reporters Friday morning. The announcement came hours after the administration confirmed that White House aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus. 

For Wilson, the virus "took its toll on him," Markel said. "That can have neurologic and long-term complications. And he was already at the time traveling and living on a train and giving five to 10 speeches a day. That's not healthy." 

When he got back to the United States, Wilson went on a whistle-stop tour to get the League of Nations ratified, which ultimately failed, Markel said. While on his tour, Wilson became thinner, paler and more frail, Markel would write in a column. He lost his appetite, his asthma grew worse and he complained of unrelenting headaches, he added. He would later have a bad stroke.

"His wife basically took over the presidency after that," he added.

Many infectious disease experts and medical historians have drawn other parallels between 1918 and today. Schools and businesses were also closed and infected people were quarantined a century ago. People were also resistant to wearing face masks, calling them dirt traps and some clipped holes so they could smoke cigars. 

Several U.S. cities implemented mandates, describing them as a symbol of "wartime patriotism." In San Francisco, then-Mayor James Rolph said, "[C]onscience, patriotism and self-protection demand immediate and rigid compliance," according to, which is authored by Markel. But some people refused to comply or take them seriously, Markel said.

"One woman, a downtown attorney, argued to Mayor Rolph that the mask ordinance was 'absolutely unconstitutional' because it was not legally enacted, and that as a result, every police officer who had arrested a mask scofflaw was personally liable," according to

As with Trump, some reports and historians have suggested that Wilson downplayed the severity of the virus. But Markel said that is a "wrong and a false trope of popular history."

The federal government played a very small role in American public health during that era, he said. Unlike today, there was no CDC or national public health department. The Food and Drug Administration existed, but it consisted of a very small group of men.

"It was primarily a city and state role, and those agencies were hardly downplaying it," Markel said. 

Unlike today, Wilson did not get sick during his reelection, Markel said. He said the public needs to know "how healthy or how not healthy" Trump is before the election on Nov. 3. 

"When you're voting for a president now, you really are potentially voting for the vice president," he said. "Because what if Trump gets sick and gets incapacitated or worse between Election Day and Jan. 20 because of Covid? Well then the elected vice president becomes president."

"The importance of him being clear, open and honest — or his doctors — with his health conditions is something I'm skeptical we'll see. But it is critical," Markel said.