Presidential Physicians Don’t Always Tell the Public the Full Story

“He is suffering from the teeth,” Bryant said. “That is all.”

Bryant was the president of the New York Academy of Medicine and would later serve as the president of the American Medical Association. His credentials were unimpeachable.

And so the next day, the papers dutifully reported that Cleveland was suffering from nothing worse than a toothache, and the nation was reassured.

But Bryant had lied. Cleveland was in fact very ill.

In late June, Bryant had examined a lesion on the roof of Cleveland’s mouth and declared it a “bad-looking tenant.” The doctor recommended it be removed immediately. But Cleveland didn’t want the public to know he was ill, so the operation was performed on a yacht owned by one of the president’s friends.

In a 90-minute operation, a hastily assembled surgical team, sworn to secrecy, removed the tumor, along with five teeth and much of Cleveland’s upper-left palate and jawbone. The procedure took place entirely within the patient’s mouth, so that no external scars would betray the operation.

Cleveland eventually recovered, and the truth would not be known until long after he died, in 1908.

Cleveland insisted on keeping his condition secret, because he didn’t want to alarm the public. At the time, the nation was mired in an economic depression now known as the Panic of 1893. If the public knew he had cancer, Cleveland believed, the stock market would crash.

Cleveland, like all presidents, was also loath to appear weak in any way. (This is especially true of the incumbent, of course.) Presidents have an almost pathological need to appear vigorous, regardless of any infirmities. And if they can’t appear vigorous, then they try not to appear at all.

That was the case with Woodrow Wilson. On October 2, 1919, he suffered a massive stroke at the White House. The left side of his body was paralyzed. It was a pivotal time for the country: The Senate was debating whether the United States would join the League of Nations. According to the historian Robert Ferrell, “The president should have resigned immediately.” But rather than resign, Wilson went into hiding inside the White House, even concealing his ailment from his own Cabinet. His physician, Cary T. Grayson, announced that the president was merely suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” For the next four months, Wilson conducted virtually no official business. The United States never joined the League of Nations.

Donald Trump has been less transparent than most presidents about his health. His trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last November remains shrouded in mystery. He is also prone to exaggeration. Harold Bornstein, the doctor who attended Trump before he became president, wrote in a 2015 letter that the then-candidate was in “astonishingly excellent” health and would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Bornstein later insisted that Trump himself had dictated the letter.

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