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Can U.S. Presidents Keep Their Health Problems Secret From the Public?

Updated May 17, 2024
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We all have things we’d rather no one else knew about. In today’s world, keeping secrets can be difficult, especially for public figures. Imagine how difficult it would be for someone like the president of the United States to keep a secret, especially regarding their health. But in the late 19th century, President Grover Cleveland proved it could be done.

In the summer of 1893, President Cleveland disappeared for four days to have a cancerous tumor secretly removed on a yacht. The country was entering an economic depression, so the president’s health was vital to the nation. During such a precarious time, Cleveland did not want to provoke further panic, so he decided to have his health problems taken care of without anyone knowing – even his vice president. When a story leaked about the surgery, Cleveland denied it and launched a smear campaign against the reporter.

Six surgeons operated on Cleveland on board a yacht called the Oneida anchored in New York Harbor. The operation took approximately 90 minutes. Remarkably, the tumor was extracted through the president’s mouth with no noticeable scarring, and his trademark mustache was left untouched. Five of Cleveland’s teeth and a large part of his upper left jawbone were removed. He was fitted with a prosthetic device to restore the shape of his face and normal speaking voice. The president recovered in three weeks and could appear in public again.

In 1917, one of the doctors who had taken part in the secret surgery published an account of what happened in The Saturday Evening Post. In 2011, journalist and historian Matthew Algeo released a book entitled The President Is a Sick Man detailing the shocking story of President Grover Cleveland’s illness and cover-up.

When the president's health is a state secret:

  • Grover Cleveland wasn't the only US president to keep his health problems secret. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated for the last 18 months of his second term. His doctor publicly stated that he was merely suffering from nervous exhaustion.

  • Warren Harding suffered from heart disease that he kept secret from the public. When he had a heart attack in 1923, his doctor declared it was food poisoning.

  • John F. Kennedy went to great lengths to hide his Addison’s disease, and when Ronald Reagan had operations for cancer while in office, First Lady Nancy Reagan insisted that the word “cancer” be left out of any official release.

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