It was the summer of 1893. Washington D.C. — well before the advent of air conditioning — was sizzling with heat and humidity. So it was really no big surprise when President Grover Cleveland announced that he would be out of town for a few weeks. President Cleveland said during his trip he’d be sailing a friend’s yacht to his summer home on Cape Cod, and do a little fishing along the way. What he failed to mention was that while he was on board that yacht, he would undergo a secret operation to treat his oral cancer.
Oral Cancer Treatment Veiled in Secrecy
It’s an interesting piece of history that author Matthew Algeo writes about in his book The President is a Sick Man.
But why all the secrecy? Why didn’t President Cleveland tell the public about the treatment for oral cancer?
As Algeo explains in his book, the U.S. economy was in a perilous state, and Cleveland worried that news about his health would upset Wall Street even further. What’s more, the stigma surrounding a cancer diagnosis was far worse than it is today, and there were few effective treatments. In fact, not even a decade before, oral cancer had claimed the life of president Ulysses S. Grant.
President Cleveland’s Operation and Recovery
Several weeks before the trip, Cleveland had noticed a swelling on the roof of his mouth. When he finally had it examined, the diagnosis was oral cancer. That’s when he secretly arranged the excursion, and recruited a team of six dentists and doctors to perform the operation onboard the yacht. All swore to remain silent… and not even the Vice President was let in on the plan.
The procedure was performed in the yacht’s salon, which had been converted into an operating room, on July 1, 1873. The medical team first anesthetized President Cleveland, and then removed a part of his upper jaw, along with five teeth. The 90-minute operation was successful, and left no noticeable scarring on his face — even sparing his distinctive mustache. In the next few weeks, as the President recovered, he was fitted with a rubber prosthesis that allowed him to eat and speak normally. After his treatment, Cleveland lived another 15 years… and in all that time, no one was the wiser.
One of History’s Best-Kept Secrets
The truth about President Cleveland secret treatment for oral cancer didn’t come out until 1917, when one of the doctors spoke toThe Saturday Evening Post. That published account marked the end of one of the best-kept secrets of the U.S. Presidents.