Why JFK and Goldwater Shared A Doctor

2 minute read

John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater didn’t have a lot in common. Political opposites, one tried to revive America’s faith in government while the other sought to limit its role. But the Democratic president and the Republican senator and presidential nominee did share at least one thing: They were both patients of Dr. Janet Travell, an expert in treating muscle cramps, an issue that affected both men.

In fact, when the newly inaugurated President Kennedy appointed Travell his official White House Physician 55 years ago—on Jan. 26, 1961—Goldwater commented that he would have to “work out a back-door arrangement” with the new President so that he could continue to see his doctor.

Among Travell’s other distinctions was being the first woman in American history to hold the position of personal physician to the president—and the first in nearly a century not to come from a career as a military doctor.

The secret to her medical popularity was an innovative treatment technique she developed after noticing that patients treated with Novocain injections experienced relief that lasted longer than the drug should have been effective. By using an acupuncture-like needle application, she was able to stop the cramps JFK experienced after he had a back operation.

“A key ingredient in any Travell prescription is her own personality,” TIME noted after her appointment. “Forceful but warm, enthusiastic but eminently sane, she gives her patients some of her own confidence and that intangible touch of magic that is often better than any drug or needle.”

Read more about Dr. Travell, here in the TIME Vault: White House Physician


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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com