Dr. Cary T. Grayson’s Naval Coat

To the lower right of Woodrow Wilson’s sharp 6 button coat in the newest photography exhibit of the president’s month long trip to the western United States stands a dark blue, double breasted American naval uniform presented with Rear Admiral Honors along the cuffs. This naval jacket, with accompanying hat, was donated to the museum by the family of the late Dr. Cary T. Grayson who regularly wore the uniform at the side of his patient President Wilson during their campaign west visiting with the American people and promoting an upcoming vote on America’s possible entry to the League of Nations. Dr. Grayson arguably spent more time with the president than anyone else during the course of his eight years in office from 1913 to 1921.


            Born in the farmland of Culpeper County, Virginia in 1878, Cary Grayson spent much of his early life in school. His academic career begins at the College of William and Mary where he graduated in the spring of 1898 at the age of 20. He began his five years of medical schooling in Charlottesville, Virginia from 1899 to 1902 before completing his schooling at the United States Medical School in 1904. After three years assigned to the USS Maryland, Dr. Grayson would be appointed head medical surgeon of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht: the Mayflower. Dr. Grayson would continue duty aboard the Mayflower through the succession of President Roosevelt to William Howard Taft and Taft’s duration in office.

            Following the 1913 inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the new president and his family attended a lunch thrown to honor the new administration in office. The president’s sister Annie Howe, at the age of 61, slipped on the marble of a staircase during the lunch causing a gash across her head. As both army and navy personnel rushed to her aid, Cary Grayson was tasked with applying emergency stretches to Mrs. Howe. Though unfortunate, this event marked the beginning of a unique and intimate relationship between the President Wilson and Dr. Grayson.

This level of trust would be developed over the years spent together as the president’s personal physician monitoring Wilson’s physical health and also prescribing regular stress relieving remedies to maintain a steady mental health as well. This task was very difficult in a time when Woodrow Wilson faced with the death of his first wife, the weight of the First World War and the pull of constant political turmoil. Of Dr. Grayson’s prescribed stress relieving activities, the two would enjoy the prescribed daily dose of golf with a variety of players with the rule of no talk of presidential business. Both took this rule very seriously and would refuse to play with anyone again who broke this rule.

As evidence of this companionship shared between Wilson and Grayson, Wilson promoted Dr. Grayson to a Rear Admiral in August of 1916. This leap in naval status for Dr. Grayson came amidst a time of crucible-like strain on the American people and the Wilson administration as the United States entered the First World War. President Wilson decided that at that point in his presidency, trusted and loyal individuals with a shared vision for peace and victory were of more value than militaristic background, thus the jump in rank for Dr. Grayson. Wilson would continue to rely on Dr. Grayson throughout his lifetime, and Dr. Grayson, in turn, became more and more of a foundational element in Wilson’s life and career. Dr. Grayson even worked alongside Mrs. Edith Wilson after her husband’s collapse in 1919, determining who the President saw and what he handled while recovering from his stroke.

In the troubled time of World War 1, noting the significant impact of Cary Grayson on President Woodrow Wilson’s ability to lead a nation cannot be overlooked. A relationship of chance, the doctor and his patient would share a bond of friendship that many attribute to Wilson’s ability to bear such stress.

Post written by WWPL intern Brendan Dodson


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