Health and Medical History of President

Grover Cleveland

President #22 & 24: 1885-1889 and 1893-1897
Lived 1837-1908
[After his cancer operation:] "My God, Olney, they nearly killed me." 1a
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Health and Medical History of President

Grover Cleveland

President #22 & 24: 1885-1889 and 1893-1897
Lived 1837-1908
Lived 1837-1908 2023 1776
Revolutionary War
War of 1812
Mexican-American War
Civil War
Spanish-American War
World War 1
World War 2
Korean War
Viet Nam War
Desert Storm
Bush's Wars
[After his cancer operation:] "My God, Olney, they nearly killed me." 1a

Maladies & Conditions  · leg laceration · obesity · typhoid fever · liked beer · cigars · temper · daughter · jaw cancer · hearing loss · early nephritis · sleep apnea risk · gout · diphtheria prophylaxis · mental state

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
leg laceration
As a youth he cut on his leg fleeing from a belltower one night. He and another boy had snuck in during darkness to ring the bell and awaken the entire town. Cleveland was sliding down a drain pipe when he was cut by a projecting piece of metal 2a.

Comment: It should be remembered that in the pre-antibiotic era such injuries could be fatal.

As a child Cleveland was "chubby and large for his age. For most of his life ... he had a tendency to be obese" 2a. In his early-mid 30s he was large enough that some of his nieces and nephews called him "Uncle Jumbo" 2a. At his inaguration as governor of New York (age 45) "Cleveland wanted to present the proper image. However, because of his size, he had no illusions that he could appear both dignified and handsome" 2b.
typhoid fever
He almost died from typhoid fever in Buffalo, NY at age 18. Extremely ill for several weeks, he was treated with a starvation diet and bed rest 2c.
liked beer
Cleveland liked beer. Boller 3a relates the following story of Cleveland's 1870 campaign for district attorney of Erie County, New York:
[Cleveland] and his friendly opponent, Lyman K. Bass, agreed to drink only four glasses of beer daily. But after they had met a few times on warm summer evenings to talk things over, they decided that their ration was too skimpy and so began to "anticipate" their future supply. A few evenings later, Bass suddenly exclaimed: "Grover, do you know we have anticipated the whole campaign?" Cleveland nodded sorrowfully. The next night, however, both of them brought huge tankards to the saloon, christened them "glasses," and had no problem with the ration after that.
Cleveland had "a huge beer belly" 2a.
Cleveland liked cigars. His oral cancer (see below) presented with pain in the left side of the roof of his mouth -- the left being his "cigar-chewing side" 1b. Cleveland "inhaled deeply and held the smoke for a long time in his lungs" 2b.
"He had a temper that quickly showed when he failed to have his own way." 4a
During the 1884 presidential campaign, a disreputable newspaper in Buffalo, NY published allegations that Cleveland fathered an illegitimate son with a 36 year old widow, Maria Halpin, in 1874. Cleveland was never sure the child was his. But because he could not be sure the child was not his, he did the honorable thing and "consented to make provision for the child" MORE 5a.
jaw cancer
On June 13, 1893, Cleveland noticed a "rough place" on the roof of his mouth. It was diagnosed as cancer, precipitating one of the most celebrated incidents in the history of Presidential medicine. MORE

Ultimately, on July 1, the President underwent a risky operation aboard his yacht. At his insistence, his illness and surgery were kept secret from the public, the press, the Cabinet, and (one presumes) the Vice President. A second, less risky operation was performed aboard the yacht on July 17.

Afterwards, direct questions about the President's health were answered falsely. "Cleveland is alleged to have said that he had done more lying in the period just before his surgery and the period immediately thereafter than he had ever done in the remainder of his life" 2d. It was 25 years before the secret was compromised.

hearing loss
After the jaw operation, Cleveland wrote ...
early nephritis
Disclosed during pre-operative assessment.
sleep apnea risk
Several facts suggest Cleveland was at risk for obstructive sleep apnea. First, he was the second-heaviest President 1c, weighing over 280 lb by the time he was elected President 2a. Only sleep apnea suffer William Howard Taft weighed more, and, like Taft, Cleveland was the butt of many obesity jokes 2b.

Second, he snored 6.

Third, he had a thick neck. (At the time of his cancer operation in 1893, Cleveland was 56 years old and was "extremely corpulent, with a short, thick neck" 1d.)

Although at risk, I have not yet found evidence suggesting he actually suffered from the disease. It will be difficult to find such evidence. Unlike Taft, "who was fascinated by his ailments and would describe them with minute detail" 7a, Cleveland wrote few letters about his personal affairs or personal feelings until his last years 8a.

He developed gout as early as 1885, when he was seen limping on his right foot at the funeral of Ulysses Grant 2b. Cleveland's gout plagued him the rest of his life MORE, abetted, no doubt, by his beer intake. During his third campaign for the Presidency, in 1892, gout enabled him to make only a few public appearances 2b.
diphtheria prophylaxis
Cleveland's 12 year old daughter Ruth developed diphtheria in January 1904. Cleveland and the rest of his family were treated prophylactically with anti-toxin 9a.

There was little that could be done for Ruth, however. Cleveland's diary palpably shows the grief he suffered at her rapid, unexpected death. MORE Ruth had been a national celebrity since her birth in the White House. The candy bar named after her lives on ("Baby Ruth").

mental state
Cleveland died on June 24, 1908, age 71. Eight days earlier, his illness was discussed at a meeting of Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet: "Straus [the Secretary of Commerce & Labor] announced that Cleveland is very ill, in fact that he had pretty much lost his mind. Root [the Secretary of State] remarked that when a man had been exerting great mental force and then suddenly stopped, it was sure to happen; Wilson [secretary of Agriculture] added, more surely kill him." 10a

Comment: Although current research is demonstrating that an active intellect is correlated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer dementia, the decline of President Cleveland sounds more abrupt than the typical Alzheimer course. It is unlikely that the theories of Root and Wilson are correct.

Odds and Ends
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Cited Sources
  1. Brodsky, Alyn. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
    a  p.315  b  p.310  c  p.4  d  p.312
  2. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.136  b  p.137  c  pp.136-137  d  p.140

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  3. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
    a  p.178
  4. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.
    a  p.215

    Comment: Stoddard was editor and owner of the New York Evening Mail from 1900 to 1925.

  5. Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1933.
    a  pp.162-169

    Comment: Won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

  6. Dugan, James. Bedlam in the boudoir. Colliers. 22 Feb. 1947; pages 17, 69-70.

    Comment: Credibility is dubious. Just before a list of Presidents, the article states: "Twenty of the 32 Presidents ... are proved or believed on a thick web of circumstance to have been nocturnal nuisances in the White House."

  7. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  p.1072
  8. Nevins, Allan (ed.). The Letters of Grover Cleveland: 1850-1908. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933.
    a  p.1
  9. McElroy, Robert. Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923.
    a  pp.327-328
  10. Howe. M. A. DeWolfe. George von Lengerke Meyer: His Life and Public Services. NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920.
    a  p.397

    Comment: Meyer was Postmaster General under Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy under William Howard Taft.

  11. Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (ed). Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America. 2nd ed. London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1981.
    a  p.433  b  p.322

    Comment: Maps -- in great detail -- the ancestors and descendants of American presidents through Ronald Reagan. They would have had an exhausting time with President Obama's family tree! MORE

Other Sources
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