Grover Cleveland

Alcohol, tobacco, and a president

grover cleveland
The patient was an overweight cigar smoker with a penchant for alcohol who one day noticed a swelling on the roof of his mouth but chose not to tell anyone about it for several weeks. When doctors were called in and pressed for a diagnosis, the verdict was cancer.

The year was 1893, a time of serious political and economic turmoil. The patient was Grover Cleveland, formerly 22nd and then 24th president of the United States. Cleveland, who had been haunted by fear of cancer and panicked at the diagnosis, set upon an elaborate scheme to keep the truth from virtually everyone, including some of the physicians who would treat him.

He contrived to spend the Fourth of July holiday aboard the yacht Oneida, setting sail from New York City and leisurely traveling to his summer home in Massachusetts. En route, doctors would remove his cancer. Preparations were as meticulous as possible under the circumstances. Physicians, dentists, surgeons, and anesthesiologists were sworn to secrecy; some didn’t know the identity of the patient until the Oneida was en route. On July 1, 1893, as the yacht steamed at half speed, the salon was converted into a crude operating room. The setup included oxygen, nitrous oxide, ether, two storage batteries to power cautery instruments and lights, strychnine in case of shock, digitalis, and morphine. Shortly after noon, the president, who had had toast and coffee for breakfast, walked to the makeshift operating room and sat in a chair lashed to the interior mast. Some accounts say the ship’s steward served as the surgical nurse.

The operation itself was a masterpiece for its time, although details were not reported until years later. Using far more anesthesia than surgeons anticipated, the team removed a major part of Cleveland’s left upper jaw, leaving a defect 2 1/2 inches long from front to back and almost 1 inch wide. The procedure was a nightmare for the medical team, but the recovery was remarkably uneventful, and the president was up and about in a few days. He couldn’t eat normally or talk until some weeks later when a specialist fashioned a rubber prosthesis to fill the hole in his mouth.

The press did get wind of the operation, possibly through a naive dentist who was brought on board to help with the anesthesia and later told his associates why he was late for work. Within a week, several newspapers reported that the president had had a malignant growth removed. At that time, cancer was greatly misunderstood; it was still considered by some to be a “social disease” – not what the President of the United States wanted to be remembered for. The spin doctors of that era were up to the task, however. What followed was a masterful medical disinformation ploy designed to move the press away from the truth. “The president had some dental work done and also is suffering from rheumatism,” his doctors reported.

Grover Cleveland lived another 16 years, suggesting that the cancer was not nearly as lethal as his doctors suspected. Nonetheless, the secret surgery set a precedent that held for many decades thereafter.


Hiram Ulysses Grant

Soldier, President

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Following this man through his life, you would have never thought he would one day be the Eighteenth President of the United States. Hiram Ulysses Grant, or Ulysses S. Grant as he is more commonly known, led a life full of successes and failures. Far from remarkable in his early life, Grant made it through early hardship and lackluster performance to lead the entire Northern Army in the Civil War, and found success in politics. But after he achieved the most powerful position in the America, Grant was stricken with oral cancer, and suffered terribly before he finally fell victim to the disease. He remains the only President of the United States to die of cancer. Years of cigar smoking and periods of heavy drinking were probably to blame.

Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822 to parents Jesse and Hannah. His father owned a tanning business and Grant had many advantages as a child. He went to grammar school at Marysville Seminary and then attended the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio. In neither of these institutions did Grant show any scholarly aptitude or desire. But to his credit he was an excellent horseman and was able to ride even the wildest horses. Despite his lackluster scholasticism, Grant’s father was able to get him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Grant’s career at the academy seemed destined for mediocrity right from the outset. The congressman who nominated Grant for the academy had spelled his name as Ulysses S. Grant and this name was officially listed in the registry. Grant tried many times to have his proper name listed but was unsuccessful. He eventually gave up and adopted the new name as his own. Grant, wholly uninterested in education, was not very enthusiastic about going to West Point. “A military life had no charms for me,” he later wrote in his journal. He merely wanted to “to get through the course, secure a detail for a few years as assistant professor of mathematics at the Academy, and afterwards obtain a permanent position as professor at some respectable college.”

His lack of enthusiasm for the academy was apparent in his performance. He graduated in 1843, ranked 21st out of 39 students, and again, only excelled in horsemanship. Upon graduation he was assigned to the 4th Infantry in St. Louis as regimental quartermaster during the Mexican War. Under the command of Zachary Taylor, he frequently led companies into battle. The Mexican War was the first time Grant distinguished himself in battle, and he received brevets for his bravery. Once the Mexican War was over, Grant was transferred to the