Booker T. Washington Did Not Die of Syphilis

The medical records of Booker T. Washington, who died 91 years ago, have been re-examined and show that he died of high blood pressure not, as some had conjectured, syphilis.

Booker T. Washington died of high blood pressure, a review of his medical records has determined, erasing a cloud over the civil rights leader’s death left by one of his doctors more than 90 years ago. The doctor wrote in 1915 that Washington died of “racial characteristics” — an often dismissive term that included high blood pressure but also syphilis.

Washington’s records were obtained with the permission of his descendants for a University of Maryland medical conference that looks each year at the cause of death of a historical figure. Past conferences have looked at Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Florence Nightingale and Edgar Allan Poe.

Washington’s records show that his blood pressure was 225 over 145, nearly double the 120 over 80 that is considered normal. The records also show that a blood test ruled out syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that was widespread at the time and thought to be a particular problem among blacks, said Dr. Philip Mackowiak, the organizer and creator of the University of Maryland conference.

Well, that’s a load off my mind.

FILED UNDER: Health, Race and Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ctaylor says:

    Recently, I have heard Dick Gregory admit that Booker T. Washington was severely beaten by a white man for looking at his wife. This beating added to the cause of his death. Could this be true?