Saturday, May 5, 2012

President Cleveland's big secret ...

As a severe economic crisis challenged the U.S. in 1893, President Grover Cleveland faced an additional, personal crisis. A sore spot on the roof of his mouth had become more and more painful. His doctor took samples of tissue from the inflamed area he found and sent them – without identifying the source – to two labs for analysis. Both reported the tissue to be cancerous.

“Keeping secrets in the 1890s was easier than it would be a century later, but Cleveland didn’t want to take any chances,” wrote historian H.W. Brands in his 1995 book The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. News of the president’s serious health problem could push the nation’s already-teetering economy over the edge, it was feared.

An elaborate plan to hide the president’s surgery was devised. Cleveland quietly left Washington on a train, supposedly to visit his pregnant wife at their summer home in Massachusetts. But instead, he was taken to a yacht on the Hudson River. On that boat, as it sailed in the waters surrounding New York on July 1, a team of surgeons and a dentist began to operate on the president.

The first step was to remove several of the president’s teeth to allow surgeons access to the tumor. Nitrous oxide – “laughing gas” – was used as an anesthetic at first. But when the medical team became concerned that it might be wearing off as the surgery continued longer than expected, ether was administered, putting Cleveland into a much deeper anesthetic sleep. After the tumor was extracted, the golf-ball sized hole was packed with gauze and the president was sent to private room to recover on the yacht.

One day later, Cleveland was able to walk in his room, but remained below deck to avoid being seen. Security became an increasing concern, however, when the medical team’s dentist – Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouck – left the yacht to perform a previously scheduled surgery on another patient. Rumors about the president’s health had already arisen, and he was brought ashore to his Massachusetts summer home on July 5. There, a presidential aide responded newsmen’s inquiries, saying only that Cleveland had an infected tooth that had been removed.

The president spent four weeks recuperating at his residence. During this period, a special rubber plug was inserted into the hole on the roof of his mouth. It prevented food particles from entering the incision and helped restore the fullness of Cleveland’s face, Brands wrote in his book.

Rumors about the president’s health gathered strength. Speaking to a colleague, Dr. Hasbrouck casually mentioned his service to the president, and the colleague mentioned the story to a friend who was a reporter for the Philadelphia newspaper. The reporter then went to Hasbrouck, telling him that he had the story but just needed a few more details, thereby duping the dentist into telling all that he knew.  But when the reporter then sought insights from the other members of the medical team, they would confirm none of Hasbrouck’s story. Instead, they said that Hasbrouck had screwed up on pulling the president’s bad teeth and had been dismissed. Hasbrouck made up his fantastic story in retaliation, they suggested.

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