Q&A: If President Kennedy hadn’t been wearing a back brace when he was assassinated, would he have lived?

Question submitted by Becky Robson, by email.

This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

JFK and his wife Jackie, on their motorcade through Dallas, 22 November 1963. (R
Despite his appearance as a vigorous and healthy man, John F Kennedy had a number of serious health problems. He wore a back brace, the result of an injury in the Second World War, and was in a good deal of pain. He also took pills for adrenal insufficiency. Kennedy was wearing the brace when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963. Although filmed and viewed by millions, few modern events have been so clouded by uncertainty. 
 
Kennedy was hit twice, first through the upper back (above the level of his brace), and then through the back of his head. The second wound killed him outright. It has been suggested that, had he not had his back brace on, Kennedy might have slumped over after the first shot, instead of remaining upright and a clear target for a second shot. The first wound, which passed through him and hit Governor John Connally, would not have killed him. 
 
We can never know what might have happened had he lurched forward, and, indeed, the circumstances of his assassination and autopsy are riddled with inconsistencies, fuelling the continued controversy about his death. The event is a humbling example of how hard it is to know what really happened.
 
Answered by William Byrnum, professor emeritus, University College London.
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