Looking Back

A president’s health, Aguinaldo’s long life

Normally the medical condition of a person is secret, covered by the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality. But when that person in question happens to be the president of the Philippines, his health is of national concern. A book by a medical doctor on the health and ailments of presidents—from Emilio Aguinaldo to the present—will make for engaging reading, and not just for a vice president who, by the nature of his/her office, literally waits in the wings, as a “spare tire,” to succeed in case the president’s heart stops beating.

Aguinaldo stayed in Malacañang as a prisoner rather than as a president, but a book on presidents’ health should begin with him.


Newspaper clippings on Aguinaldo in the Lopez Museum, from the 1950s to his death in 1964, carry articles or notices on his birthdate, March 22. The man had become a living relic of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, often visited by journalists who never left empty-handed because he was good copy.

In his twilight years—what we would describe today as the “pre-departure area”—he was often in his mansion in Kawit, Cavite; in his last days he was in a suite at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City; often surrounded by family and visitors, even busloads of schoolchildren on excursion, he would recount the exciting days of his youth, episodes of the Philippine Revolution, always prefaced with “Noong kapanahunan ko…” in genteel Tagalog. Aguinaldo seemed immortal and was made so on the floor of the United Nations when his name was used in vain.


It was late November 1952. The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) foreign minister, Andrei Vishinsky, in fighting form and lecturing a UN legal committee on the determination of aggression, went on to accuse the United States of various crimes, including the murder of Emilio Aguinaldo during its imperialist experiment in the Philippines.

After Vishinsky spoke, Mauro Mendez of the Philippines, asked to be recognized, and when he was given the floor calmly stated: “Mr. Chairman, the Americans have not killed Aguinaldo. As a matter of fact, he is still alive.”

Aguinaldo laughed when he heard this bit of news and added it to the growing list of anecdotes he pulled out to entertain guests.

What was Aguinaldo’s secret to longevity? His critics quoted the famous Spanish saying: “Hierba mala nunca muere”(Bad grass [masamang damo] dies not). Philippine Revolution veterans would say: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

But Aguinaldo did not fade away.

Others suggested he had an anting-anting that made him bullet- and bolo-proof. Then there is the legend of the friendly kapre that lived in the ancient mango tree whose branches reached the upper floors of his home. It is said the kapre warned him of impending dangers and approaching assassins.

Aguinaldo himself said the secret was good marriage (he had two: the first to Hilaria del Rosario who died of leprosy in 1921, the second to Maria Agoncillo who died in 1963); and the care he received from them. When Agoncillo would tease him and recall his reputation as a ladies’ man in his youth, the general would not object and sheepishly reply “kung minsan” (sometimes). Had he lived a bit longer, who knows, he might have taken a third wife.


His second secret was diet. He avoided carbohydrates like bread and rice when he could, and had lots of fruits and vegetables. At breakfast he had a cup of native chocolate that he washed down with a glass of fresh milk. Lunch was a light entrée and fruit. Merienda, like breakfast, was a cup of chocolate and a glass of milk. Dinner was squab, his favorite, and rice. Midnight snack was yet another glass of milk.

The third secret was exercise. His home was filled with assorted, open and concealed stairways. He would go up these stairs all the way to the mirador (lookout tower) every day, until he had a bad fall which limited him to pacing back and forth, 40 times a day, in his large living room.

The fourth secret was not worrying too much, and getting a good night’s sleep.

In Aguinaldo’s case, however, longevity was a liability. He may have outlived all his enemies, but as Mabini once lamented, “He missed a glorious death on a battlefield.”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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