A family fortune, a beloved father, and a determination to overcome childhood infirmities set young Theodore Roosevelt on the path to becoming the 26th President of the United States. Born into one of New York’s wealthiest clans on October 27, 1858, Roosevelt was called “as sweet and pretty a young baby as I have ever seen” by his maternal grandmother, even though his mother thought the newborn looked like a turtle.
Renowned for his vigor as a president, Roosevelt possessed little as a child. Malnourished from lack of appetite, the thin, hollow-chested boy suffered from frequent colds, coughs, nausea, headaches, cramps and fevers. Not to mention the dream that their young “Tedie” might one day occupy the White House, Roosevelt’s parents feared he might not survive his fourth birthday.
Three-year-old Teedie suffered terrifying asthma attacks that struck without warning. Wedged into a bed or chair, the fragile and frightened child felt like he was drowning as he endured endless nights of wheezing and gasping for breath. “I was a sickly, delicate boy, suffered greatly from chronic asthma, and often had to be taken on journeys to find a place where I could breathe,” Roosevelt recalled in his autobiography.
Roosevelt’s parents dipped into their considerable coffers to care for Teedie, although many Victorian-era remedies proved medically questionable. Doctors administered electric shocks, controlled bloodletting and massages so rigorous that they made the boy’s chest bleed. They prescribed black coffee, cigars and even ipecac to induce vomiting, thinking the food was putting excessive pressure on his lungs.
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Roosevelt grew up idolizing his father
In the end, Roosevelt’s father proved the best tonic for the sick boy, cradling him and carrying him upright whenever he struggled to breathe. “I could breathe, I could sleep, when he had me in his arms,” Roosevelt recalled. The eldest Roosevelt searched everywhere for fresh air that could fill his son’s lungs, taking Teedie on a year-long trip to Europe and carriage rides across Broadway on freezing nights.
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. also instilled a philanthropic spirit in his namesake. Teedie watched his father, whom he considered “the perfect man”, donate his time and money to hospices and orphanages, help found the New York Museum of Natural History and attend a , if not two, religious services every Sunday. After church each week, Teedie competed for his father’s approval by trying to outdo his siblings by memorizing two Bible verses and writing the best summary of the day’s sermon. “He could not yet be the strong, healthy son his father wanted, but Theodore had already learned that the road to his father’s favor was also paved with godliness,” Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: An Exhausting Lifetells HISTORY.com.
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Roosevelt became a student of nature
Although lacking in physical strength, a boy’s wisp was bursting with intellectual power. Often confined to bed, the curious Teedie was educated at home and found companionship on the shelves of his family library. “While he was out of breath, Roosevelt continued to read avidly, especially the adventures which featured the struggle and triumph over danger by larger-than-life heroes,” Dalton says. “Already his imaginative life was populated by the Ivanhoes, Robin Hoods, Natty Bumpos, and soldiers of the Civil War and American Revolution, all heroic male adventurers who carried him far from his sickbed.”
While the asthmatic boy’s need for clean air sparked a lifelong affinity for the outdoors, the science books he devoured, including those written by Charles Darwin, rekindled his love of nature. Roosevelt amassed a collection of animal specimens and, to the dismay of the family housekeepers, took courses in professional taxidermy. His menagerie included snapping turtles and a family of gray squirrels. He kept live mice in his shirt drawer and dead mice in the cooler. By the age of 11, Teedie had collected 1,000 objects which he called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”.
“He went out into nature to learn scientific facts,” says Dalton, “because science was the new truth of his day and it shaped his worldview as much as any other set of ideas.”
His father led him to strengthen his body
As Teedie’s teenage years approached, his father challenged the frail boy: “Theodore, you have the spirit, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the spirit cannot go as far as he should. You have to Craft your body.”
A human whirlwind for whom idleness was an enemy, Roosevelt threw himself into the drudgery of exercise to overcome his limitations. His father converted the second-floor plaza of the family’s Manhattan brownstone into a makeshift gymnasium where Teedie spent hours hanging from gymnastic rings and parallel bars. He took boxing lessons from a boxer and went to a nearby gym every day to lift weights.
READ MORE: How Teddy Roosevelt shaped a vision of American manhood
When 13-year-old Teedie received his first gun, the extremely myopic boy couldn’t shoot straight. After even failing to see the letters on a distant billboard his friends were reading, Roosevelt received his first pair of eyeglasses, which were eye-opening in more ways than one. “I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got these glasses,” Roosevelt later wrote.
Roosevelt’s asthma attacks never completely subsided, but they did. Although they may have naturally diminished as he grew into adulthood, Roosevelt credited his vigorous exercise regimen with reinforcing his belief in the value of hard work. Having learned that exercise and outdoor living built character – and having seen the impact they had on him – Roosevelt extolled “the doctrine of the arduous life”, as he called it in a speech at 1899. “This highest form of success,” said Roosevelt, “comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who shrinks not from danger, hardship, or bitter toil. .
The incredibly prolific Roosevelt practiced what he preached. The once-ill boy graduated from Harvard University, wrote more than 30 books, rose through the ranks of New York politics while enduring the deaths of his mother and first wife on the same day, became a war hero after organizing the Rough Riders and eventually becoming the youngest president in American history. In doing so, he fulfilled his revered father’s credo: “Take action. Do things. Be sane. Don’t waste your time.”