A dentist helped save a president’s life

a dentist helped save a president's life

Time for another “Sweet Moment in Dental History” – read below to learn how a dentist, along with a team of talented surgeons, helped save a president’s life.

In 1893, soon after entering his second term as president, Grover Cleveland noticed a rough spot on the roof of his mouth (known as the palate). When presidential doctor Major Robert O’Reilly came by for a social call, the president asked O’Reilly to take a look at it. O’Reilly discovered a lesion that he described as “nearly the size of a quarter”.

O’Reilly took samples of the area and sent them anonymously to the Army Medical Museum and consulted with Dr. William Welch at Johns Hopkins. Both diagnoses reported a type of malignancy which would be called a “carcinoma” today. In other words, the spot on his palate was cancerous and had to be dealt with quickly.

O’Reilly decided to consult two of the best surgeons available on the president’s condition. William W. Keen and Joseph D. Bryant. Bryant in particular was experienced in performing surgeries in this area of the mouth. The physicians agreed that the president would have to undergo surgery.

However, there were political considerations. A nationwide depression had just begun and in the name of strengthening the economy, the president was leading a movement to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and uphold the gold standard. In August, the president had to address Congress and thus, he had to be able to recover from the surgery’s effects by that time. It was already late June. Furthermore, the president was concerned that reports of his condition could prove even more unsettling, so the surgery would have to be done in secret.

Fig 1 – President Cleveland (left, center) aboard the Oneida (right), the yacht where his secret surgery took place.

Commodore Elias Benedict, a friend of the President, had a yacht, the Oneida (shown in Figure 1), and it was decided to perform the surgery there. The yacht’s saloon was converted into a surgical center. Besides O’Reilly, Bryant and Keen, the surgical team would consist of a dentist, Ferdinand Hasbrouk, Edward Janeway, and J.F. Eidmann. Hasbrouk would be the one who would administer anesthesia to the president, a not-uncommon practice at that time. His presence proved useful at a later point when rumors circulated about the surgery; White House aides said that the president’s only problem was the removal of a tooth and fortunately, a dentist was on board.

The surgery was performed on July 1, 1893. Hasbrouk administered anesthesia and removed two of the president’s teeth. Cocaine was used as a topical anesthetic as Bryant and Keen began the surgery (little known fact – cocaine was the first local anesthetic!)

The surgery took nearly an hour and a half. However, the President’s speech was affected by the loss of 2.5 inch x 13/16 inch loss of his palate. At this point, Kasson Gibson, another dentist, was brought in and he was able to fashion a prosthesis to cover the defect. Cleveland made a steady recovery, although some days after the first surgery, a lesion was removed in a second operation aboard the yacht.

The first cast of Cleveland’s jaw, made in 1893, shows the extent of the damage to his upper palate and jaw while the second cast from 1897 demonstrates how much healing and regeneration of tissue took place over the course of the next several years (seen in Figure 2). Bryant operated through Cleveland’s mouth in order to minimize any external signs of injury, especially since Cleveland and his physicians were determined to keep the severity of his illness as quiet as possible.

Fig 2: Casts of President Cleveland’s teeth and palate from 1893 (left) and 1897 (right).

Cleveland’s physicians and friends released no information about the surgery to the public, telling visiting reporters at first that the President was suffering from rheumatism and then that he had only a mild dental ailment.

Hasbrouk had apparently been the source of a report that appeared in the papers soon after the surgery, but the White House was able to cover up the story. It was not until 1917, nine years after Cleveland died, that the public finally learned about the president’s secret surgery. It took a team of experts to help President Cleveland through this difficult ordeal, but I think it’s pretty cool to know that dentists played a role in helping him through the surgery also helping him speak/function afterwards. It makes me very proud to be a part of this profession every time I come across a story about a dentist making an impact in history, which is why I enjoy sharing them here.

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Carlson, Eric R. and Sanjay P. Reddi. “Oral Cancer and United States Presidents” Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, Feb. 2002, 60(2), pp. 190-193.

Hoang, Hoat M J and Patrick O’Leary. “President Grover Cleveland’s Secret Operation.” The American surgeon. Aug. 1997, 63(8), p.75.

Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip, Philip Kunhardt and Peter Kunhardt. The American President. New York : Riverhead Books, 1999.

Spiro, Ronald H. “Verrucous Carcinoma, Then and Now.” American Journal of Surgery, 1998 Nov;176(5):393-7.