Amidst the economic downturn that became known as the Panic of 1893, the American public looked to President Grover Cleveland for reassurance on the economic health of the nation. Little did they know, President Cleveland was privately occupied by his own health concerns.
In May of that year, the Commander-in-Chief noticed a rough spot along the roof of his mouth near his molars on his left side where he liked to chew his cigars.* At the time, the president was busy mediating debates with Congress about the benefits of the gold standard versus the silver standard, and he tried to avoid thinking about the rough spot growing inside his mouth.
The nation was shaken when former Union Army General and Past-President Ulysses S. Grant died from oral and esophageal cancer in 1885, and President Cleveland was acutely aware of the “cancer phobia” instilled in most Americans. For these social and political reasons, the president treaded lightly.
By June 1893, White House attending physician Robert Maitland O’Reilly, MD, examined President Cleveland and consulted leading pathologist William H. Welch, MD, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD, and renowned maxillofacial surgeon Joseph Decatur Bryant, MD, Bellevue Hospital, New York, NY. The physicians uniformly agreed that the growing epithelioma must be removed. As the finest team of surgeons was assembled to perform the operation, President Cleveland continued to worry about the U.S. economy, insisting that his surgery and health remain a secret. His own Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, was never informed.
The media tracked the movements of the Commander-in-Chief, so President Cleveland asked that the surgeons perform the operation aboard a friend’s private yacht named the Oneida. On July 1, 1893, while the president made the seemingly typical voyage from Manhattan to his summer home near Cape Cod, five surgeons sworn to secrecy worked to excise the president’s tumor in a makeshift operating room aboard the yacht.
Once the ether took hold, the surgeons rapidly removed five teeth, the hard palate, and part of the maxilla. Ultimately, they removed parts of the tumor that had invaded the maxillary sinus and cleared tissue superiorly to the floor of the left orbit (see Figure 1).† The entire operation took place inside of 90 minutes as the yacht smoothly sailed along the East River that flanks Manhattan.
Because of his absence over the Fourth of July holiday, a flurry of reporters greeted President Cleveland outside his summer home in Cape Cod. He immediately went inside to avoid any questions and secluded himself in the house. During this period of isolation, he began retraining his voice, as the operation had given him an acquired case of cleft palate. A prosthodontist fitted him with a rubber prosthesis that helped his speech tremendously. People were suspicious, and rumors surfaced, but the White House silenced them.
Both President Cleveland and the economy became healthier, surviving into the 20th century without any recurrence of illness. Grover Cleveland died in 1908 of a cardiac illness unrelated to his cancer.
Figure 1. Artist’s rendering of tumor
*Algeo M. The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press; 2011.
†Brooks JJ, Enterline HT, Aponte GE. The final diagnosis of President Cleveland’s lesion. Trans Stud Coll Physicians Phila.1980;2(1):1-25.