Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
The Secret Operation
On 1 July 1893, an operation was performed on President Grover
Cleveland to remove a cancerous lesion from his left upper jaw.
The operation took place on a private yacht as it steamed up Long
Island sound to the President's summer home in Massachusetts. Performing
the surgery was Dr. Joseph D. Bryant of New York, assisted by Dr.
W. W. Keen of Philadelphia, three other doctors, and a dentist.
The surgeons performed the entire operation inside the mouth without
making an external incision. Two weeks later, a second operation
was done, again on the yacht, to remove additional suspicious tissue.
A vulcanized rubber plate was made for the President, which restored
his speaking voice so well that when he reappeared in public no
one could detect that an operation had taken place.
Despite all the care taken to prevent publicity, the story broke
on 29 August in the Philadelphia Press. It was firmly denied by
the White House and Cleveland's friends and family. The official
word was that the President had had a bad tooth extracted.
The reason for the secrecy was that the country was in the middle
of a financial crisis caused by the inflationary Sherman Silver
Purchase Act of 1890. Cleveland had been elected to a second term
on a platform that called for repeal of the Act and his leadership
was essential to that process, which was to begin at a special session
of Congress on 7 August 1893. His Vice-president, Adlai Stevenson,
was a "silver man" and opposed to the repeal. Feeling that any sign
of ill health might be interpreted as weakness and throw support
to the pro-silver side, Cleveland decided to keep the operation
President Cleveland's Second Inauguration
President Cleveland was the standard-bearer
of a Democratic Party that was split into two factions - the
conservative pro-business gold standard faction which he led,
and the free-silver faction led by William Jennings Bryan.
Cleveland defeated President Benjamin Harrison's re-election
bid in 1892 by campaigning on a sound-money platform, but
was able to carry his party only by choosing free-silver advocate
Adlai Stevenson as his running mate.
Given the political climate, Cleveland decided that the operation
should be kept secret. Plans were made to assemble a surgical
team selected by Dr. Bryant on the private yacht Oneida, owned
by Cleveland's friend, Commodore Elias C. Benedict.
Dr. Keen wrote that, "The entire operation was done within the
mouth, without any external incision, by means of a cheek retractor,
the most useful instrument I have ever seen for such an operations,
which I had brought back from Paris in 1866."
Dr. Kasson C. Gibson, a New York prosthodontist, was called up
to the President's summer home to make a vulcanized rubber prosthesis
to fill in the large defect in the President's palate and restore
his speech to normal.
From the time of the operation, questions lingered as to the exact
nature of the lesion and its malignancy. In 1975, a reexamination
of the tissue determined that it was a verrucous carcinoma of the
hard palate and gingiva, which fit the clinical features of the
case as described by Drs. O'Reilly, Keen and others. Unlike the
highly metastatic oral cancer squamous carcinoma, it is usually
cured by surgical excision.
Dr. William Williams Keen
Dr. Keen was professor of surgery at Jefferson
medical College from 1889 to 1907, and was known as a bold
and innovative surgeon and was recognized as a leader in the
field. Keen concluded that Cleveland's decision to keep the
operation a secret had been a wise one.
After his operation, Cleveland returned to Washington for
the special session of Congress he had called on 7 August.
With his urging, the House passed the repeal of the Sherman
Act on 28 August. The fight in the Senate continued at greater
length, and the repeal was not finally passed until 30 October.
In a letter to Dr. Kasson C. Gibson, written 14 October 1893,
Cleveland writes: "My dear Doctor, I hasten to announce that
you have scored another dental victory and a greater one than
has before attended your manipulation of my corpus. The new
plate came last night...I have worn it all day with the utmost
ease and comfort...my wife says that my voice and articulation
are now much better than they have been for a number of days...If
I could only regain my strength and hearing I should feel
quite like myself."
Verrucous carcinoma is typically associated with the use of tobacco
and alcohol. Cleveland occasionally drank spirits and was very fond
of beer; he also enjoyed smoking both cigars and pipes.