Next month marks the 50th anniversary of both the Whiskeytown National Park dedication by John F. Kennedy and his subsequent assassination shortly after. It’s difficult to pen anything regarding JFK that people haven’t read a hundred times over. I hope to change that here.
President Kennedy seemed the image of youth and vigor in an office traditionally held by men physically way beyond their prime but valued for their experience and gravitas. JFK broke the mold with his full head of hair, movie star smile, and perpetual tanned skin. It is the perpetual tan that gives away his underlying fragility. One could be forgiven for assuming he tanned from long weekends on the yacht.
It has become known that JFK suffered from Addison’s disease. Named after Thomas Addison who discovered it 1855, Addison’s disease is caused by a collapse in the function of the adrenal glands. It is usually an autoimmune attack upon the adrenals or sometimes an infection that destroys the small glands that sit atop our kidneys. Our adrenal glands (which make adrenaline) are responsible for maintaining our electrolyte balance, blood pressure, and general homeostasis of the circulatory and nervous systems. The adrenal gland is under direct control of the pituitary gland deep in our brains. If the pituitary senses the adrenal is being lazy, it sends a complex chemical through the blood stream to stimulate it. In Addison’s disease however there is no longer a functioning adrenal gland to respond to its master. But the master pituitary keeps dumping the stimulating hormone into the blood unchecked, unaware of the adrenal governmental shut down. This chemical signal grows stronger and stronger, as normally the adrenaline produced would shut off the pituitary in a thermostat like negative feedback system. Soon the cells in our skin that make our pigment, melanocytes, become responsive to this master hormone and bronzing of the skin is observed. This tan arises completely independent of sunlight. It could occur in a dark coffin. And since the tanning mechanism offers no feedback the process worsens and patients get darker and darker.
On an overseas trip in 1947, Kennedy developed vomiting, nausea, and low blood pressure. A doctor at the London Clinic diagnosed Addison’s and placed Kennedy on an early type of prednisone to simulate adrenaline. He was reportedly so ill that last rites were administered on the ship back across the Atlantic. Initially the drug was administered in IV form but Kennedy opted for small pellets of the substance inserted under the skin and replaced every few months. In the 1950’s oral prednisone became available and this was added to his regimen. He not only improved clinically but his tan also gradually faded away. Some medical historians have speculated that Kennedy’s full cheeks may have looked healthy but actually were the result of too much prednisone, which may have also contributed to his duodenal ulcers and chronic back pain from thinning bones. Kennedy suffered from enough varied aliments to keep historical sleuths busy for decades to come.
It sounds like the holy grail of marketing: a natural tan without the skin damage and no bedeviling tan lines. When the pituitary is trying to rally the adrenal glands it excretes alpha-melanocyte-stimulate hormone as part of its effort. There appears to be no immediate harmful affects of this tanning. The University of Arizona in the late 1990’s formulated a synthetic version of this hormone, calling it Melanotan. Test subjects quickly achieved healthy bronze glows to the researchers’ delight. But Melanotan users also noted decreased appetite and increased libido. There was also a bizarre reaction that caused men to have spontaneous erections when they yawned (two things not usually associated right?). Melanotan quickly became known as the “Barbie Drug” in the media because it made you tan, sexually aroused, and thin. Melanotan was never able to gain FDA approval and remains a black market drug utilized heavily in the body building world. The concern is that it could induce formation of a melanoma or excite an already existing melanoma akin to pouring kerosene on a flame. It is currently being tested in smaller doses for erectile dysfunction of a psychological nature.
Perhaps Kennedy’s trim figure and golden tan were not the only manifestations of his Addison’s disease. Could it just be possible that his numerous extramarital conquests can be partially blamed on the condition as well? Even if it did, I’m not sure it would have made it any easier on Jackie.