Much speculation has been raised historically about George Washington and his lack of progeny. It is an interesting irony that the Father of our Country was never in fact a father himself.
George Washington was the second husband of Martha, who was priorly widowed. During her first marriage, Martha gave birth to four children, although only two of them survived infancy. There is no existing evidence that Martha’s last pregnancy was complicated by any ancillary issues that would have affected her ability to conceive, such as a postpartum infection or hemorrhage. Martha was still a young woman of 28 when she married George, so advanced maternal age would not have been the issue either.
Based on the few surviving letters exchanged between the pair, it is evident that the Washingtons were a close and intimately connected couple who wished to have children together. The conventional wisdom of their era never would have lent itself towards the assumption of male infertility. Therefore, the couple simply believed that the issue belonged to Martha, not George.
Medical historians however, do not agree. Several potential theories have emerged which might explain George’s infertility. These include:
- Klinefelter’s syndrome – Typified by tall stature, testicular failure, and sometimes mild to severe cognitive defects. This diagnosis would explain George Washington’s height (6’3″ tall) and dental issues, but his powerful musculature would not have been consistent with the diagnosis. Washington also had no indication of any level of cognitive dysfunction, quite the contrary.
- Endocrine dysfunction, such as testosterone deficiency – This could also have explained Washington’s unusual stature, but his well known physical strength seems to contradict this diagnosis.
- Congenital anatomic cause, such as a varicocele – A varicocele could in fact have explained Washington’s infertility, but cannot be validated by historical record, as no known medical evidence exists to support this diagnosis..
- Sexual dysfunction or erectile dysfunction – This diagnosis is theoretically possible but unlikely, as based on the correspondence between George and Martha who appeared to enjoy an intimate sexual relationship.
- Toxic exposures – Washington used a form of mercury, mercurous chloride, during his early adulthood for the treatment of chronic bloody diarrhea. Mercury exposure has been shown to lower sperm count, but the effects of this form of poisoning diminishes when the substance is no longer in use, so toxic exposure is not the likely culprit of George’s presumed infertility.
- Infection of the testis, caused by mumps or tuberculosis – Washington had both mumps in early childhood and tuberculosis at age 19. Because his mumps were contracted prior to puberty, most medical historians now believe that tuberculosis was the most likely cause of Washington’s infertility.
Of course, this is all theory, and falls under the category of amusing arm chair speculation. The relevancy of George Washington’s life has never been measured by his ability or inability to father a child, but rather on the huge impact he had on history, as well as on the loving and close relationship he enjoyed with his wife, step children and step grandchildren. These all provide for an enviable legacy.
Articles referenced for this column include: George Washington’s infertility: Why was the father of our country never a father? by John K. Amory, M.D. and related works by W.S. Randall.