History Book – Presidential succession, and ping-pong

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: The WORLD History Book. Today, playing ping-pong for peace. But first, the passing of a president.

Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.

AUDIO: [song]

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the saying goes. And 180 years ago, on April 4, 1841, our nation’s leaders found themselves scrambling to invent a constitutional succession plan upon the death of President William Henry Harrison.

Before taking the nation’s highest office, Harrison became a national hero. The Western Reserve Historical Society explains.

AUDIO: In November 1811 they win a significant but costly victory over the Shawnee at a place called Tippecanoe. And so for a little while, at least, Harrison kind of becomes a household name. 

Harrison was only the ninth U.S. president, but he managed to nab at least a couple of records—like first president to die in office. And to this day, shortest tenure as president, at only 31 days from inauguration to death. He also delivered the longest inaugural address in American history in the cold and the rain without an overcoat or hat. The result: death from pneumonia exactly one month later.

His death sparked a constitutional crisis. The Constitution had a plan for presidential succession, but it wasn’t clear if the Vice President would actually become president, or just take on the “powers and duties” of the president for a brief period. Ultimately, Harrison’s cabinet and Chief Justice Roger Taney decided Vice President John Tyler should be sworn in as president. That procedure became precedent, and Section I of the 25th Amendment made it official more than 100 years later, in 1967.

Moving from a significant death in American history to a significant death in medical history.

It’s been 115 years since the death of the first patient diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Auguste Deter died April 8, 1906, in Germany, where she lived all her life. Deter was a housewife and mother—and by all accounts, she made her home a happy place. That is until she reached her 50s, when her capabilities and even her personality began to change.

ROTHMAN: She was only 51 years old, but she had rapidly progressing memory loss…

Dr. Marc Rothman is a geriatric internist. In an informational video series by a dementia resource group, he described Deter’s symptoms when she finally sought help.

ROTHMAN: Trouble with language, she was paranoid, she was having hallucinations. 

Deter’s husband, Carl, took her to a mental hospital in Frankfurt for examination. Dr. Alois Alzheimer took her case. But Carl didn’t make enough as a railway worker to afford the facility. He tried to move her to a less expensive clinic, but Alzheimer made a deal with him: Keep Deter at his mental hospital for free, but consent to donating Auguste’s brain and medical records for research after her death.

Melanie Perry works with memory care patients. She explained how Dr. Alzheimer’s postmortem examination of Deter gave him insights into how the disease physically changes the brain.

PERRY: He was able to look at her brain tissue under a microscope and able to see for the first time what we now know are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Those characteristics include plaques and tangles in the brain. The World Health Organization reports that 50 million people around the globe have dementia, with cases increasing by about 10 million each year. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, making up about 70 percent of those cases.

And for our final entry today, geopolitical rivals come to the table—the ping pong table.

AUDIO: [ping pong sounds]

Fifty years ago, in an attempt to thaw frosty relations, China hosted the U.S. table tennis team for a week-long visit. On April 10, 1971, the team and accompanying journalists became the first American delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949.

The U.S. held communist countries at arms’ length following World War II. Both sides stood to gain something from de-escalating tensions: China wanted America on its side in case it needed an ally against Russia. And Washington hoped to use China as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with North Vietnam.

George Braithwaite was on the U.S. team.

BRAITHWAITE: We were very happy that table tennis became the media through which it would help pave the way for establishing better relations between two of the world’s greatest powers. 

The event succeeded in improving relations between the two countries. Around that same time, other countries, including Australia, also managed to smooth things over with China through table tennis. The U.S. lifted its embargo against China on June 10, 1971. President Richard Nixon visited the country the following year.

NEWSREEL: And Premier Zhou Enlai moves forward to greet the first American president to set foot on Chinese soil. East meets West as a handshake bridges 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostility. 

Over two decades later, the movie Forrest Gump used that real-life match as fodder for its fictional story.

CLIP: Somebody said world peace was within our hands, but all I did was play ping-pong.

That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

AUDIO: [song]

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm) George Brathwaite, a member of the U.S. table tennis team, is greeted by his wife at New York’s Kennedy Airport on April 18, 1971, as he arrived home from competing in China.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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