Podcast Episode 213: Grover Cleveland’s Secret Surgery

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In 1893, Grover Cleveland discovered a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. It was feared that public knowledge of the president’s illness might set off a financial panic, so Cleveland suggested a daring plan: a secret surgery aboard a moving yacht. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the president’s gamble — and the courageous reporter who threatened to expose it.

We’ll also audit some wallabies and puzzle over some welcome neo-Nazis.

Intro:

Robert Louis Stevenson inadvertently borrowed much of Treasure Island from Washington Irving.

When Graeme Gibson donated his parrot to the Toronto Zoo, it suddenly called after him.

Sources for our feature on Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery:

Matthew Algeo, The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, 2011.

William Williams Keen, The Surgical Operations on President Cleveland in 1893, 1917.

Shahid R. Aziz, “The Oral Surgical Operations of Grover Cleveland: A Presidential Cover-Up,” Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery 53:9 (1995), 1088-1090.

W.O. Fenn et al., “Dr. Joseph Bryant’s Role in President Grover Cleveland’s Secret Anesthesia and Surgery,” Anesthesiology 119:4 (October 2013), 889.

“The Secret Operation on President Cleveland,” British Medical Journal 1:3568 (May 25, 1929), 965.

Ronald H. Spiro, “Verrucous Carcinoma, Then and Now,” American Journal of Surgery 176:5 (1998), 393-397.

Andrew Renehan and J.C. Lowry, “The Oral Tumours of Two American Presidents: What If They Were Alive Today?”, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 88:7 (1995), 377.

Philip H. Cooper, “President Cleveland’s Palatal Tumor,” Archives of Dermatology 122:7 (1986), 747-748.

Richard L. Rovit and William T. Couldwell, “A Man for All Seasons: WW Keen,” Neurosurgery 50:1 (2002), 181-190.

“Without Prejudice,” British Medical Journal 2:5467 (Oct. 16, 1965), 938.

John J. Brooks and Horatio T. Enterline, “The Final Diagnosis of President Cleveland’s Lesion,” JAMA 244:24 (1980), 2729-2729.

William Maloney, “Surreptitious Surgery on Long Island Sound,” New York State Dental Journal 76:1 (January 2010), 42-45.

Robert S. Robins and Henry Rothschild, “Ethical Dilemmas of the President’s Physician,” Politics and the Life Sciences 7:1, Medicine and Political Behavior (August 1988), 3-11.

Richard Norton Smith, “‘The President Is Fine’ and Other Historical Lies,” Columbia Journalism Review 40:3 (September/October 2001), 30-32.

“A Yacht, A Mustache: How A President Hid His Tumor,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, July 6, 2011.

“Grover Cleveland – Secret Surgery,” University of Arizona Health Sciences Library, July 20, 2018.

Arlene Shaner, “The Secret Surgeries of Grover Cleveland,” New York Academy of Medicine, Feb. 27, 2014.

Paul Maloney, “Grover Cleveland’s Secret Surgery,” Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association (accessed July 23, 2018).

“Dr. W.W. Keen Dies; Famous Surgeon,” New York Times, June 8, 1932.

Abigail Trafford, “Presidential Illness: Are Coverups Still Possible?”, Montreal Gazette, Jan. 8, 1987, A1.

Martin D. Tullai, “Health Secret Was Once Possible for U.S. President,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 1994, A6.

Allan B. Schwartz, “Medical Mystery: Grover Cleveland’s Secret Operation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 24, 2016.

Dan Gunderman, “The Secretive, Disfiguring Medical Battle Waged by President Grover Cleveland as the Nation Fell Into a Deep Depression,” New York Daily News, Dec. 25, 2016.

David Steinberg, “Should the President Undergo Independent Medical Evaluations?”, Boston Globe, May 27, 2018, A.4.

Listener mail:

“Wallabies in Onchan,” Onchan and Garff Area Matters, Facebook, July 12, 2018.

Samantha Harrelson, “Wandering Kangaroo Causes Rollover Crash Near Dodson in Northern Montana,” KTVQ, June 21, 2018.

“Two Injured in Montana After Swerving to Avoid a Kangaroo or Wallaby,” KULR 8, June 21, 2018.

Rob Rogers, “Startled Driver Rolls Car to Avoid ‘Kangaroo’ in Northern Montana,” Billings Gazette, June 21, 2018.

“Prohibited Species,” Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (accessed Aug. 16, 2018).

“Animals Go Wild! The Wallabies of Kalihi Valley,” Hawaii News Now (accessed Aug. 16, 2018).

“Native Animals,” New Zealand Department of Conservation (accessed Aug. 16, 2018).

“Kawau Island Wallabies,” New Zealand Department of Conservation (accessed Aug. 16, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Kawau Island: History” (accessed Aug. 12, 2018).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Self-Taught

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Image: Flickr

Jazz guitarist Pat Martino had a burgeoning record career by age 20, but in 1976 he began to suffer headaches, followed by mania, depression, and seizures. He attempted suicide several times, but hospitalization and electroshock therapy brought no relief. In 1980 a CT scan discovered an arteriovenous malformation that had begun to hemorrhage, and a surgeon removed 70 percent of Martino’s left temporal lobe.

After the surgery he didn’t know his name, recognize his parents, or know he was a musician. When his father played his old records for him, “I would lie in my bed upstairs and hear them seep through the walls and the floor, a reminder of something that I had no idea that I was supposed to be anymore, or that I ever was.” But when a visiting friend played a major seventh chord, Martino found that he wanted a minor ninth and took up the instrument again.

“As I continued to work out things on the instrument, flashes of memory and muscle memory would gradually come flooding back to me — shapes on the fingerboard, different stairways to different rooms in the house,” he wrote.

Aided by his father, friends, photographs, and mainly by his own recordings, he learned the instrument afresh, “to escape the situation, and to please my father.” Neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza writes, “The process of memory retrieval took him about two years. Although he never lost his manual dexterity, the necessary skill to play guitar again to his previous musical level took years to bring back.”

In 1987 he recorded his comeback album, The Return, and he’s made more than 20 albums since then. Galarza writes, “To our knowledge, this case study represents the first clinical observation of a patient who exhibited complete recovery from a profound amnesia and regained his previous virtuoso status.”

(Marcelo Galarza et al., “Jazz, Guitar, and Neurosurgery: The Pat Martino Case Report,” World Neurosurgery 81:3 [2014], 651-e1.)

The Lovers of Valdaro

lovers of valdaro

In 2015 I wrote about the Hasanlu lovers (left), two skeletons discovered at the site of an ancient Iranian city that had been sacked in the ninth century B.C.

In 2007 archaeologists discovered a similar pair at a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy. It appears the two were no older than 20 when they died; though weapons were found in the grave, there was no evidence that the pair had died violently. Double burials were unusual in that period, but the reason for this one is unknown.

The skeletons are on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. Archaeologist Elena Menotti, who led the excavation, told Reuters, “We want to keep them just as they have been all this time — together.”

First Across

I can’t confirm this, but it’s interesting: In his 1954 book Lonely Voyagers, French navigator and maritime historian Jean Merrien claims that the first documented case of a single navigator crossing the Atlantic is that of a Native American who reached the Iberian peninsula long before Columbus’ time:

In the Middle Ages there arrived one day on the coast of Spain a man ‘red and strange’ in a craft described as a hollowed tree. From the recorded description, which specifically states that he was not a Negro, he might well have been a native of America in a piragua — a dug-out canoe … the unfortunate man, ill and enfeebled, died before he had been taught to make himself understood.

In Christopher Columbus: The Mariner and the Man, Merrien suggests that Columbus may have known about this man and assumed that he had come from China. I’ll see if I can discover his original source; if I can I’ll update this post.

Agitato

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Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret was a classically trained vocalist, and in 1950 Washington Post music critic Paul Hume drew Truman’s ire with a negative review. He wrote that Margaret was “extremely attractive on the stage… [but] cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” Truman wrote to him:

Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34] who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

[Columnist Westbrook] Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.

Possibly sympathetic with Truman’s hurt feelings, neither Hume nor his editor wanted to run the letter, but it leaked out in the now-defunct Washington News and started a scandal, outraging citizens who felt that the president seemed more concerned with his daughter’s reviews than with the war in Korea. One telegram read:

HOW CAN YOU PUT YOUR TRIVIAL PERSONAL AFFAIRS BEFORE THOSE OF ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY MILLION PEOPLE. OUR BOYS DIED WHILE YOUR INFANTILE MIND WAS ON YOUR DAUGHTER’S REVIEW. INADVERTENTLY YOU SHOWED THE WHOLE WORLD WHAT YOU ARE. NOTHING BUT A LITTLE SELFISH PIPSQUEAK.

William Banning of New Canaan, Connecticut, enclosed a Purple Heart with his letter:

Mr. Truman:

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might just as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

William Banning

According to biographer David McCullough, Truman kept the letter in his desk for several years.

Atomic Gardening

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, when the world was casting about for peaceful applications of fission energy, activist Muriel Howorth established the Atomic Gardening Society, a global group of amateur gardeners who cultivated irradiated seeds, hoping for useful mutations. Howorth published a book, Atomic Gardening for the Layman, and crowdsourced her effort, distributing seeds to her members and collating their results. She herself made news with “the first atomic peanut,” a 2-foot-tall peanut plant that had sprouted from an irradiated nut.

She teamed up with Tennessee dentist C.J. Speas, who had a license for a cobalt-60 source and had built a cinderblock bunker in his backyard. Via Howorth he distributed millions of seeds to thousands of society members, but the odds remained against them: It would likely require many times this number to hit on a mutation that was potentially useful.

The Atomic Gardening Society disbanded within a few years, but it gave way to more ambitious “gamma gardens” of 5 acres and more in which plants are arranged in rings around a central radiation source. This technique continues today in America and Japan.

Anatomy Lesson

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1808, English artist Benjamin Haydon was midway through painting the assassination of Dentatus when a friend convinced him to visit the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon recently brought to Britain:

The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature. I saw that the arm was in repose and the soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to mid-day conviction. My heart beat! If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or repose, — when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, with the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat, — and when, turning to the Ilissus, I saw the belly protruded, from the figure lying on its side, — and again, when in the figure of the fighting metope I saw the muscle shown under the one arm-pit in that instantaneous action of darting out, and left out in the other arm-pits because not wanted — when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life, the thing was done at once and for ever.

He “dashed out the abominable mass” of his own painting and devoted himself thereafter to drawing the marbles for as many as 15 hours a day. When he took the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli to see them, “Never shall I forget his uncompromising enthusiasm. He strode about saying, ‘De Greeks were godes! de Greeks were godes!'”

Horse Play

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, features a life-size horse puppet devised by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Three actors cooperate to bring the character to life; philosophically, puppeteer Basil Jones says that Handspring aimed to offer “a real horse on stage, … a horse that is disinterested in what the humans are saying around him” and that remains “slightly unpredictable.” That’s informed by an enormous amount of study and practice — new puppeteers visit stables, watch DVDs, and study horse gaits and psychology in what Jones calls “a total immersion”:

Together with the rehearsals the puppeteers have two months of training before they see their first audience. Over scores of performances, the puppeteers become shamans of the horse. Their intuition as to what their fellow puppeteers are about to do becomes finely tuned. This triple performance is a pretty special event to watch on stage.

It seems to work. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that “puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns,” but in this case the puppets are “truly magnificent creations.” The Guardian‘s Michael Billington agreed: “The joy of the evening … lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”

Finis

Stanley Kubrick was an avid chess player, and the game in 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it’s incidental, makes sense and seems to have been planned with care. In fact it seems to have been based on an actual game, played between A. Roesch and Willi Schlage in Hamburg in 1910. That game started with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. Qe2 b5 6. Bb3 Be7 7. c3 0-0 8. 0-0 d5 9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxe5 Nf4 11. Qe4 Nxe5 12. Qxa8? Qd3! 13. Bd1 Bh3!:

2001 chess game

Here Roesch (and astronaut Frank Poole) played 14. Qxa6?, picking up a pawn but recklessly abandoning the long diagonal. Schlage (and supercomputer HAL 9000) pounced with 14. … Bxg2. When Poole withdraws the threatened rook, HAL says, “I’m sorry, Frank, I think you missed it: queen to bishop three [threatening 16. … Nh3#], bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate.”

Technically White can hold out a bit longer with 16. Qc8 Rxc8 17. h3 Nxh3+ 18. Kh2, but then the ax falls with 18. … Ng4#. Poole, and Roesch, resigned.

The Last Ditch

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A few months ago I read in The Guinness Book of Music Facts and Feats that Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” is the only song known to have been sung in a court of law — specifically, sung to a jury by a defense attorney. I had my doubts about this, but I’ve just gone scrounging around and lo it is true. From the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1935:

An attorney sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ to a jury today in a vain attempt to save his client from prison. After listening to the rendition by John Brett, the lawyer, the jury convicted Lloyd Grable, Oklahoma city motor-car mechanic, of attempted bank robbery and specified life imprisonment.

The story is headlined “Lawyer Sings, Client Gets Life.” The defendant’s thoughts are not recorded.