Myers' Research Examining How President Wilson's Doctor Helped Craft a President's Image and Memory

22 Jan 2017 4:50 PM | Dane Claussen

(Editor’s Note: Cayce Myers, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, presented his research-in-progress, “Managing the ‘Prophecy of Wilson’: Carey T. Grayson’s Role in Crafting the Public Image and Memory of Woodrow Wilson, 1919-1921,” at the 2016 AJHA Convention. The Intelligencer asked him to tell us more about how he came to do this research, what it means, and why it’s important.)


Grayson is standing on the stop of the caboose of the train above Wilson. Photograph courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, VA


By Cayce Myers

Virginia Tech

Carey T. Grayson was more than a White House physician for Woodrow Wilson. He was the president’s confidante, friend, and, at times, the public face of the White House. Working so closely with the president Grayson was witness to the most significant events of Wilson’s presidency: the Paris peace talks after World War I, the Western tour promoting the League of Nations, and Wilson’s stoke and subsequent convalescence during the latter years of his presidency. In fact, it was during Wilson’s stroke and recovery that Grayson’s role was the most significant. Working with Edith Wilson, the president’s second wife, Grayson not only provided Wilson medical care, but also communicated with the public providing information about the president’s condition. Fiercely loyal to President Wilson, Grayson’s public communications provide unique insight into how the White House handled the crisis of Wilson’s health, and, in turn, began crafting a historical narrative of his presidency.

I first learned of Carey Grayson while researching the archives at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Va., on a Niles research grant awarded by Virginia Tech. I was initially interested in how Wilson’s staff, notably his private secretary Joseph Tumulty, dealt with the press during Wilson’s stroke and recovery in 1919 to 1921. However, as in doing all archival research, I found something unexpected along the way. Talking to the archivist at Wilson Presidential Library, I found that one of the most interesting figures in Wilson’s health crisis was his personal doctor Carey T. Grayson.   

Grayson’s papers are located at the Wilson Presidential Library, but they were privately held for years. A real admiral in the U.S. Navy and later chairman of the Red Cross, Grayson led a remarkable life that intersected with many luminary figures of the first half of the twentieth century. Fortunate for historians he was a saver of correspondence and a writer of numerous letters and diary entries. What was most interesting in Grayson’s papers was his correspondence to the public concerning Wilson’s health. After Wilson’s stroke in 1919 the president received many letters from well wishers who suggested a variety of remedies for his illness. Grayson responded to many of these people, and attempted to cast the president’s condition in the best light possible. At the end of Wilson’s presidency Grayson also played a role in crafting the remembrance of Wilson. His correspondence with Wilson biographer Ray Stannard Baker shows that Grayson recognized the power of history and memory.

This work is part of a long-term project I have worked on that examines early uses of public relations and image management. Many early U.S. histories of public relations do not include the contributions of figures like Grayson who found himself in the unique and unanticipated position of handling press and image management issues. Examining the work of Grayson shows the unique and organic way public relations, press relations, and image management developed in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

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