On June 9, 1954, 16 million Americans were riveted to their tiny, black-and-white TV screens. It was the 30th day of the Senate "Army-McCarthy hearings,” the latest manifestation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s grandiose and combustible quest to root out the communists he imagined at all levels of American life, including the Army.

McCarthy, formerly an obscure Republican from Wisconsin, shot to fame with his red-baiting campaign in 1950, which he also expanded to exposing homosexuals in government he decided could be blackmailed by the Russians. At first, he won praise from many citizens of a country at war with North Korea, even as he destroyed careers in Washington, Hollywood, and all points in between.

But by 1954, his star had faded with his rising paranoia, and on June 9, Army chief counsel Joseph Welch delivered a rebuke that remains famous.

Out of nowhere, McCarthy accused a young associate in Welch’s law firm of being a “legal arm of the Communist Party.” The stunned Welch confronted McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. ... Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

The hearings ended inconclusively, but McCarthy’s glory days were gone. He served out the rest of his Senate career until his death in 1957 at age 48, an event that seemed sudden to the nation at large. But perhaps not so much to those who knew him well.

What ended his life so early? And how did his health influence his mental state as he led his famous political witch hunts?

Solution

Sen. Joseph McCarthy was known for his excessive alcohol consumption, and numerous witnesses reported seeing him drunk on the Senate floor and hobbled by hangovers. It was also suggested that McCarthy had a personality disorder.

Some staff and observers grew to fear how McCarthy's verbal recklessness would get even worse in afternoon Senate hearings after his cocktail-soaked lunches.

McCarthy often interrupted proceedings and diverted the discussion entirely off-topic. One report described McCarthy’s behavior with words such as “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” “vulgar,” and “insulting.” The legendary Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now reports on TV exposed and attacked his methods before millions, helping prompt the senator’s downfall.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), his right arm in a cast, rests in bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital on Nov. 22, 1954. He was undergoing treatment for an elbow injury he said occurred in a Milwaukee handshaking accident. Debate on the moves to censure him was delayed because of the injury.
Associated Press
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), his right arm in a cast, rests in bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital on Nov. 22, 1954. He was undergoing treatment for an elbow injury he said occurred in a Milwaukee handshaking accident. Debate on the moves to censure him was delayed because of the injury.

On July 30, 1954, the Senate began debating a censure resolution against McCarthy, which witnesses connected with an escalation in his drinking. His hospitalization with an elbow injury delayed matters a bit, but on Dec. 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate voted 67-22 to censure him for behavior “contrary to senatorial traditions.”

After that, McCarthy was in the hospital frequently for what was reported as sinus trouble, bursitis, broken bones, and exhaustion. Ignored by colleagues and the media, he was described as a “pale ghost of his former self.”

On April 27, 1957, McCarthy was urgently admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital for a knee injury and was in an oxygen tent for days while listed in serious condition.

Blood tests revealed elevated liver enzymes and abnormal liver function. The diagnosis was severe alcoholic hepatitis, inflammation of the liver due to excessive drinking. It usually is found in association with fatty liver (steatonecrosis), an early stage of disease that, if not controlled by medication and sobriety, leads to cirrhosis.

Signs of alcoholic hepatitis include fatigue, loss of appetite, fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity, and edema of lower extremities. Severe liver inflammation may be associated with jaundice due to elevated bilirubin levels; blood coagulation is affected and can lead to severe hemorrhage.

Severe cases may involve all parts of the body, including heart and kidneys, and can even mean brain dysfunction, including irrational and even paranoid behavior.

Acute liver failure can occur rapidly due to a drug overdose or a poison reaction. But the chronic liver failure that McCarthy suffered may take years to occur.

Liver transplant — which wasn’t available in McCarthy’s day — is a last resort for end-stage liver disease.

On top of alcohol, McCarthy was reported also to be using morphine, an opiate, which is a powerful liver toxin. Reportedly, he was kept supplied with the drug by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, whom McCarthy had threatened.

McCarthy died on May 2, 1957. His death certificate listed the cause as “hepatitis, acute, cause unknown.” Press reports at the time hinted at his alcoholism. Today, historians agree chronic alcohol abuse destroyed his liver and ended his life.

Allan B. Schwartz is professor of medicine in the division of nephrology and hypertension at Drexel University College of Medicine