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How did the U.S. operate in the past when its leader was sick?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

A hidden stroke. A heart attack that was presented as indigestion. A “fishing trip” that was actually cancer surgery aboard a yacht in the Long Island Sound.

Donald Trump is not the first president to get sick in the White House. Conflicting reports have raised questions about the severity of his #COVID-19 illness. A look back in history shows that a few of his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans, did what they could to make sure Americans didn't know the full story about their medical conditions.

One thing a National Geographic and Morning Consult poll has found about the latest illness is that it is changing attitudes. Sixty-two percent of Americans questioned after Trump announced he has COVID-19 say they are more favorable toward people wearing a mask (a third didn’t know or weren’t more or less favorable on the issue). More Americans of all ages, demographics, and political persuasions reported wearing masks in public, the poll of 2,200 Americans found. (We’ll have more on this later today on NatGeo.com).

In the past, presidents feared what Americans thought about illnesses such as cancer or a leader perceived as physically weak. Grover Cleveland’s maritime cancer operation stayed secret for 24 years. Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, surreptitiously took on presidential tasks while the White House masked the crippling effects of her husband’s stroke. Dwight Eisenhower, pictured above after his 1955 heart attack that was initially presented as an upset stomach, was recovering from another emergency surgery when the Middle East exploded in the 1956 Suez crisis. In the last year of his life, Franklin D. Roosevelt had deteriorated so much that a shocked Vice President Harry S. Truman calculated the president wasn’t long for this world. FDR wasn’t.

“Whether they were unwilling to relinquish their power or didn’t want to be perceived as vulnerable, several presidents covered up their illnesses,” Amy McKeever and David Beard write in their survey of presidential sickness.

Even presidential death has been a mystery. Nearly a century later, historians are convinced doctors gave the wrong cause of death for Warren G. Harding. We’re still not sure what killed William Henry Harrison.

The Constitution offered little guidance on what to do if a president was still alive, but unavailable, even temporarily, to carry out his duties. Finally, in 1967, the 25th amendment was passed to create a mechanism to replace, temporarily, a president who has become incapacitated.

It’s only been used by two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who voluntarily (and briefly) turned over power during medical procedures. So far, there are no plans to use it now, administration officials told the Washington Post.

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Today in a minute

Nobel season: The annual awarding of the Nobel Prizes got underway today with medicine—and awards for three researchers who discovered the hepatitis C virus, a major contributor to liver disease. The Nobel committee said Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles Rice won for paving the way “for the development of screening methods that have dramatically reduced the risk of acquiring hepatitis from contaminated blood and has led to the development of effective antiviral drugs that have improved the lives of millions of people.” An estimated 70 million cases of hepatitis C exist worldwide and 400,000 people die from it each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Reimagining monuments: The largest humanities philanthropy in the United States is giving $250 million to support the creation of new monuments, as well as the relocation or rethinking of existing ones, the New York Times reports. “How do we teach our history in public places?” asks Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation. The foundation has recently given grants to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, which honors Black lynching victims across the country.

Another Supreme Court justice: Already a legal giant in civil rights, Thurgood Marshall took his seat on the high court 53 years ago ago last Friday. The first Black Supreme Court justice consistently opposed the death penalty, and wrote spirited dissents as the court turned more conservative, Erin Blakemore reports. In a 1978 case on affirmative action, Marshall wrote that bringing Black people into mainstream American life “should be a state interest of the highest order. To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society.”

R.I.P. Bob Gibson: Inspiring and intimidating, the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer was perhaps the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, an era that included Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal. To many kids of all races and ethnicities, the intense, brook-no-fools Gibson was a role model, even if he once said: “Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid.” Gibson, who had pancreatic cancer, died Friday at age 84, ESPN reports.

Instagram photo of the day

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A new generation: Refugees from strife in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been bottled up in Greece, hoping other nations from the European Union would accept them. Last week, the United Nations reported that seven European nations have accepted 1,066 asylum-seekers from Greece this year. (Pictured above, Hussein, a 26-day-old Iraqi refugee photographed on May 26, resting under mosquito netting inside his family’s shelter at a camp in Athens, the Greek capital.)

Related: Migrant teens in Greece face pressure not to go to school

The big takeaway

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The Enlightened One: Siddhartha Gautama did not want a following devoted exclusively to him. Yet the man the world knows as Buddha, who left behind his home and family in present-day Nepal, created teachings that have become the foundation of a faith with 500 million followers. Recent archeological findings have gathered clues about him and the early development of the religion, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. (Pictured above, a Buddhist sage sits under a bodhi tree in the Nepalese pilgrimage site of Lumbini.)

In a few words

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On Tuesday, George Stone covers travel. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, Rachael Bale on animal news, and Whitney Johnson on photography.

Last glimpse

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A followup: Our story last week on America’s endangered historic places prompted questions on the excavation and location of an Indian burial mound in Virginia. Writes author Andrew Lawler: “Thomas Jefferson built his home of Monticello not far from the south fork of the Rivanna River upstream from Rassawek, on ancestral Monacan land. He noted tribal members still visited their ancient burial mounds, which still dotted the landscape.”

In 1783, Jefferson began what has been called the “first scientific excavation in North America” on a 12-foot-high mound near Monticello. At the time, Europeans speculated that this and other mounds in western Virginia were burials of warriors after a battle. Jefferson, likely using enslaved African Americans, instead uncovered the bones of men, women, and children he estimated would total 1,000 skeletons.

He also pioneered a method of digging a trench and examining the layers, determining that lower layers were older. This stratigraphic approach was not put into practice for another century, when British archaeologist Flinders Petrie began using this technique in Palestine. Jefferson’s excavation showed that the Monacans had lived for many generations on the land before being displaced by Europeans.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega also helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and happy trails.