Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 20, 2022
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The president’s secret surgery

Cleveland wasn’t the first to hide the truth about his failing health, and he certainly won’t be the last

Countless Canadian physicians enjoy American politics as a spectator sport, especially now that the thrilling 2008 presidential campaign is in full swing. Indeed, not in many years have we been treated to such an exciting and momentous race for the White House, with both sides presenting their history-making candidates amid a veritable maelstrom of mud slinging, scandal and sensationalism. Whatever happens, the world will be watching with baited breath.


No doubt equally excited by the unfolding events are the legions of medical history buffs, many of whom are physicians themselves. Part-time dabblers and full-time researchers of such things are surely already wondering what role the candidates’ medical conditions might play in both the short and long term, and whether or not any secret ailments might soon come to light.

While Obama’s stellar medical results made the news, McCain’s well-publicized battle with melanoma makes his nomination of Sarah Palin for vice president even more intriguing. History has shown that the commander-in-chief’s illness or injury can have an enormous impact on his presidency and perhaps even on the outcome of world events.


All the presidents’ pus

The appeal of posthumous postulating on presidential pustulating (sorry, couldn’t resist!) is undeniable. Did Abraham Lincoln really suffer from Marfan syndrome? How did FDR hide his progressing polio for so long and, more intriguing still, was his paralysis the result of Guillain-Barré syndrome instead? Just how serious was JFK’s Addison’s disease? And did Woodrow Wilson have a secret stroke while in office? While some secrets have gone to the grave with these mighty men, others have come to light of late, reigniting the debate over whether public interest is helped or hindered by the outing of a sick president.

Back in 1893, there was no such debate. The powers that were simply sought to cover-up even the slightest whiff of woe or wooziness emanating from the White House, as the strange case of president Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery can attest…


Democrat on the rise

Cleveland was an interesting president, a Democrat known both for his integrity and strength as well as his stubborn, and sometimes impulsive, nature. He holds the distinction of being the only commander-in-chief of the United States to be elected to office for two non-consecutive terms, from 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897, making him both the 22nd and the 24th President.

Though he was born in Caldwell, NJ, on March 18, 1837, Stephen Grover Cleveland was raised in upstate New York. His father was a Presbyterian minister and he instilled strong values into his fun-loving and sociable, but also highly intelligent, son. Cleveland eventually decided to become a lawyer and began to practice in Buffalo in 1859.

He became mayor of Buffalo in 1881 and quickly ascended to the governor’s mansion. Cleveland’s first bid for president ended in success in 1885 after he managed to win the support of many Republicans who disliked their own party nominee, James G. Blaine, widely believed to be corrupt and immoral.

In his first big scandal, Cleveland became the one and only president so far to hold a White House wedding for himself when he married Frances Folsom in June of 1886 — somewhat of surprise since the girl was only 21 years old... 28 years younger than Cleveland! Despite naysayers, they had a happy marriage and five children together (their firstborn, dubbed Baby Ruth, inspired the name of the candy bar). Politically, Cleveland listened to his conscience, reforming government, reducing its size and using his veto power liberally to uphold public interests.

Cleveland’s health, however, did not mirror his vigorous attitude. Always a portly sort, his weight was ballooning to over 250 pounds (113 kilograms). He loved to eat, drink beer and especially smoke, and was rarely seen without his beloved cigars and pipes. It would be these unhealthy habits that would soon come back to haunt him.


Second term, first sign of trouble

Though he held the popular vote, Cleveland lost his bid for reelection to Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1889 after failing to win enough electoral votes. During the next few years, his health deteriorated slowly. By the time he was elected to the presidency once again in 1893, he was quite ill with gout in his foot and hand. “Uncle Jumbo,” as Cleveland has been somewhat familiarly known, found his hedonistic lifestyle catching up with him. Still, he soldiered on, never really letting it slow him down.

Cleveland’s second term was fraught with more challenges, too; he faced several issues that had been steadily worsening since his first presidency, including the market crash and so-called Panic of 1893, subsequent economic depression, the debate over protective tariffs and a currency crisis which divided the country over whether or not silver should be used to prop up the deflating gold standard. The president’s harsh treatment of striking railroad workers was extremely unpopular (he sent the army in to make sure the mail could get through) and so he faced more and more public and political opposition.

All the while, Cleveland was battling personal demons, not just those of an entire nation. Immediately after assuming office in 1893, in the middle of his fight to repeal the free silver coinage his predecessor Harrison had issued to help ease deflation, Cleveland discovered a sore inside his mouth on the left side, where he liked to chew his cigars. His physicians soon diagnosed him with malignant cancer of the small palate. Fearing public panic over a possibly terminally ill president at a time of national financial crisis, a secret surgery was scheduled for July 1, 1893.


Offshore drilling

To put off the press and the public, and to make sure everything appeared to be business as usual, the operation was held aboard Cleveland’s friend’s private yacht, the Oneida. Cleveland’s spokesperson was prepared to say that the president was leaving town for a few days to visit his pregnant wife at their summer home in Massachusetts. A crack team of medical experts was assembled, including a dentist and five physicians, led by Dr Joseph D. Bryant.

Using a new cheek retractor that surgeon Dr William Williams Keen had brought back from a trip to France, the surgeons went in through Cleveland’s mouth so that no external scars would be visible and excised as much of the cancer as they could. The operation went well, though to be safe, a second surgery was performed a few weeks later to remove more tissue. Nearly a century later, in 1975, curious medical historians reexamined the tumour that had been kept and put on display at Philadelphia’s macabre Mütter Museum, and discovered that Cleveland’s doctors had been correct — the president had indeed suffered from verrucous carcinoma of the hard palate and ginviva.

Despite the extensive and painful nature of the procedures — “My God, Olney, they nearly killed me!” Cleveland later told his attorney general — the President recovered well. The doctors replaced the parts of his palate and jaw that had been removed with a special rubber plate designed by New York prosthodontist, Dr Kasson C. Gibson. It restored the appearance of his sunken jaw — much bone had been removed — and allowed him to speak properly again almost immediately. Fortunately, his cancer was surgically treatable, as opposed to some other forms of oral cancer, and he was, for all intents and purposes, cured.


Just a toothache?

The president’s surgery would turn out to be a very successful secret. Still, nearly two months after the first surgery, the press got wind of what had happened and the story broke. But vehement denials from the White House — whose cover story was that Cleveland had simply had a tooth pulled — kept the public placated.

It wasn’t until 1917, long after Cleveland’s death from a heart attack at age of 71 in 1908, that the truth came out. In 1917, Dr William Keen revealed exactly what had gone down on the Oneida that day in 1893 in an article he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post.

In an apt tribute to Uncle Jumbo, Grover Cleveland was the treasury’s choice when it came to deciding who to put on the $1000 bill. And although the bill was discontinued by the government in 1969 in a bid to curb organized crime, it is still legal tender... and remains favoured fodder for those extravagant types who like to make a show of lighting their cigars. One wonders whether the stogie-loving president Cleveland would be honoured or appalled.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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