Anders Zorn / public domain

Cleveland Goes Under the Knife: The Incredible True Story of a Secret Presidential Surgery Aboard a Luxury Yacht

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In the modern media era, it is virtually impossible to imagine how much surgery on a sitting President would dominate the news cycle.

Live updates through cable news, streaming services and social media would be constant, while panels of pundits would deliver constant interpretations of what was happening in and around the White House while the President was under.

Now imagine the reaction if it was discovered a President had that surgery in secret, aboard a wealthy banker’s luxury yacht, in a bid to prevent an economic panic from worsening.

Incredibly, that all happened back in 1893 when, somewhere in Long Island Sound, President Grover Cleveland had a cancerous tumor removed from his jaw.

Despite rumors of the surgery leaking shortly after it took place, the first-ever surgery performed on a sitting president would be covered up for more than two decades before one of the surgeons eventually revealed what took place.

A plan was hatched for Cleveland to have the tumor removed while on a friend’s yacht, as it traveled from New York City to a holiday home on Cape Cod.

Though presidents as far back as Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) suffered from diseases and other ailments, only Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush joined Cleveland as those who have ‘gone under the knife’ when they lived in the White House.

Eisenhower (who also suffered from a heart attack and stroke while in office) underwent surgery to treat Crohn’s Disease in 1956, while Reagan had six surgeries during his two terms in the 1980s, including the removal of a bullet from an assassination attempt, in 1981.

More recently, George George W. Bush underwent two colonoscopy procedures in 2002 and 2007. While they were unconscious, both Reagan and Bush temporarily transferred the power of the presidency to their Vice-Presidents, George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, under the 25th Amendment.

That constitutional lever was not available in 1893, nor were the vast improvements in medical technology that would ensure the continuing health of future Presidents.

The road to Cleveland’s historic, and unusual, surgery began on May 5, 1893, when the President discovered a bump on the roof of his mouth. It would take a month before he finally had it checked out by his personal physician Dr. Joseph D. Bryant, who diagnosed the growth as cancerous.

“It is a bad looking tenant,” Bryant reportedly told Cleveland. “Were it in my mouth, I would have it removed at once.”

The proposed removal of the growth came at a bad time for the president. Cleveland was dealing with the start of a four-year recession, later known as the Panic of 1893, and was worried that news of him going under the knife would scare Wall Street further.

A plan was hatched for Cleveland to have the tumor removed while on a friend’s yacht, as it traveled from New York City to a holiday home on Cape Cod.

 

USN Photograph NH 100588 / public domain

 

While the press were told he was enjoying a four-day fishing trip, the ‘Oneida’, an impressive steam-powered cruiser owned by prominent New York banker Elias C. Benedict, was made ready for the presidential procedure.

The yacht’s saloon was transformed into an operating theatre, with all but a harmonium that was bolted to the floor, removed. The room was completely disinfected, while a large chair, where Cleveland would be seated, was tied to the mast that came through the center of the saloon. A single bulb powered by a portable battery provided light.

Along with Bryant, five other surgeons were brought aboard, having been ferried from different piers to avoid suspicion. Dr. William W. Keen, Jr, credited by many as America’s first brain surgeon, was involved.

Just after midday on July 1, 1893, Cleveland went under anesthesia (ether), and the surgeons went to work.  According to a recent article in The Surgery Journal, cocaine solution was injected around the growth, while nitric oxide was used to manage pain.

In a 90-minute operation led by Bryant, the tumor was removed, along with five teeth, a third of Cleveland’s upper palate, and part of his upper left jawbone. All were kept for further examination.

Because the tumor was removed through Cleveland’s mouth, there would be no major scarring. The president’s famed bushy mustache made for a perfect cover for any that did exist.

Even for modern surgeons with a far more extensive range of instruments and equipment, operating at sea is a hugely difficult task. Though the president would require further surgery to install a rubber palatal obturator, the operation was a great success; evidenced by a speech Cleveland gave to Congress a month after the tumor was removed.

The press described Cleveland, who was never troubled by cancer again, dying of a heart attack in 1908, as “in perfect health” and “looking well and not the least weary” when he spoke.

Thanks to confirmation from one of Bryant’s six-strong team, Philadelphia Press journalist E.J. Edwards would report about the secretive surgery later in 1893.

Cleveland denied Edwards’ reportage, and even launched into a smear campaign against him. In 1917, Keen would write about what happened, finally proving Edwards right.

Regardless of Cleveland’s cover-up and the risks involved on the ‘Oneida’, Matthew Algeo, who wrote The President Is a Sick Man about the incident, described the first ever surgery on an American president as an “extraordinary achievement in American medicine.”

“The doctors took incredible risks. I mean, it was really foolhardy,” Algeo told NPR, in 2011.

“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons [while] researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; [that] they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”

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