By Tim Coco
WHAV President & General Manager (volunteer)
Haverhill native Frank Howard Lahey (1880-1953) took a dark secret to his grave. He knew in 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not survive a fourth term and feared being criticized for not making his findings public.
The Open Mike Show took time March 4—the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration—to dig into Lahey’s secret. Roosevelt indeed died three months into his fourth term. The renowned suregon was conflicted between his confidential duty to a patient and his obligation as a citizen.
“I am recording these opinions in the light of having informed Admiral (Ross T.) McIntire Saturday afternoon July 8, 1944 that I did not believe that, if Mr. Roosevelt were elected President again, he had the physical capacity to complete a term,” Lahey wrote in the July 10, 1944 memo that would be sealed for 60 years. Lahey specified the conditions upon which the memorandum might be revealed.
“It is to be opened and utilized only in the event that there might be criticism of me should this later eventuate and the criticism be directed towards me for not having made this public. As I see my duty as a physician, I cannot violate my professional position nor possible professional confidence, but I do wish to be on record concerning possible later criticism,” Lahey wrote.
Lahey was asked by McIntire, the president’s personal physician, for a second opinion on Roosevelt’s health. Lahey concluded Roosevelt either had been in heart failure or “on the verge of it” during a recent wartime conference in Russia. He said the president suffered by high blood pressure and coronary damage.
While Roosevelt decided to continue his run for an unprecedented fourth term, the surgeon likely influenced the vice presidential decision when he wrote, “I have told Admiral McIntire that I feel strongly that if he does accept another term, he had a very serious responsibility concerning who is the Vice President. Admiral McIntire agrees with this and has, he states, so informed Mr. Roosevelt.” The president privately replaced Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the ticket with Senator Harry S. Truman the day after the Lahey memo. Truman officially replaced Wallace during the Democratic convention later that month.
Despite court case, secrecy persists
In 1984, Dr. Harry Goldsmith convinced Linda M. Strand, who signed the letter as a witness and succeeded Lahey after his death in 1953, that the conditions for the letter’s release had been met. Goldsmith had heard of the letter’s existence from another of Lahey’s former colleagues. Lawyers at Herrick and Smith, Boston, who had held the letter in the firm’s safe, refused to release it. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Jeremiah J. Sullivan sided with the law firm. Strand, supported by the National Archives and Records Administration, among others, appealed.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, taking the appeal for itself and hearing the matter between Dec. 5, 1985 and Feb. 18, 1986, agreed with Strand. “The evidence presented suggests that Dr. Lahey was part of a conspiracy of silence regarding President Roosevelt’s ill health. These opinions, regardless of their validity, constitute posthumous criticism of Dr. Lahey ‘for his conduct in relation to his consultation and his failure to make a public report thereof’ (emphasis added). The condition precedent to Herrick & Smith’s redelivery of the ‘Lahey memorandum’ has occurred. Strand is entitled to possession of the memorandum,” the court ruled.
Strand turned the memo over to Goldsmith who held the letter in continued secrecy for another 21 years until he self-published “A Conspiracy of Silence: The Health and Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The then-little-known book received scant attention. Only recently, when Lahey’s Dr. David Steinberg discussed the letter, did the facts finally become common knowledge.
Lahey, one of the first inductees into the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame, founded the Lahey Clinic. He was president of the American Medical Association in 1941, head of the Army and Navy Procurement Board in World War II and was recognized for numerous contributions to medical practices and research. His father owned the successful Fletcher and Lahey construction and quarry business, and asked his son to join the business. Lahey, however, went to Harvard Medical School and trained as a surgeon, served in World War I and then opened his own practice in 1926 in Kenmore Square, Boston.
The Open Mike Show, broadcast live from WHAV’s Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, is heard Monday nights between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. A video simulcast is seen on the Internet at www.WHAV.net and Haverhill Community Television Channel 22. In addition to listener calls, original investigative reporting and topics in the news, the show’s Haverhill Heritage Series has shed light on such topics as “Haverhill’s Urban Renewal Program,” “Haverhill’s Titanic Newspaper Battle” and “How FM Inventor Armstrong Links to Two Sisters from Merrimac and Poet Whittier.”