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William W. Keen's material related to the operation of President Cleveland

Identifier: MSS 2/076-07

Scope and Contents note

This collection documents William Williams Keen’s role in President Grover Cleveland’s 1893 secret surgery through Keen’s correspondence and reflections. The collection primarily covers developments surrounding two events: the surgery on July 1st, 1893, and the publication of Keen’s Saturday Evening Post article which appeared on September 22nd, 1917. Material in the collection was initially assembled in a scrapbook, however due to preservation concerns items were removed from the scrapbook and placed in folders. The collection contains three series: “Correspondence,” “Assembled Notes,” and “News Clippings.”

The “Correspondence” series largely contains Keen’s letters to and from individuals involved in some capacity with President Cleveland’s surgery. This includes Keen’s initial correspondence with Joseph Decatur Bryant and Robert Maitland O’Reilly regarding the preparation and follow-up of President Cleveland’s surgery. A significant portion of the letters relate to Keen’s attempt to accurately recreate the events of the surgery for his eventual article. To accomplish this goal Keen began corresponding with Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston for permission to discuss her former husband’s condition in 1916, which is documented in the series. Keen also corresponded with Annette Bryant, Florence Bryant de Peyster (Joseph Bryant’s daughter), Karson C. Gibson, Elias Cornelius Benedict, James Ford Rhodes, and E. J. Edwards for the purpose of clarifying events surrounding the surgery, all document in the series. Also of note are the letters exchanged between Keen and Ferris Greenslet from the Houghton Mifflin Company, regarding the company’s interest in publishing a Grover Cleveland biography. Houghton Mifflin requested Keen’s insights on the former President, however Keen responded that he was in the process of writing an article on the subject and the company would have to wait. Other letters include thank-you notes to Keen for his groundbreaking article.

The series dates include 1893, 1905, and 1915-1918. Folders are arranged chronologically to reflect the progression of Keen's actions, beginning with the actual surgery of President Cleveland, then followed by his article preparation and publication.

The “Assembled Notes” series contains material assembled by Keen to prepare for the eventual writing of his article. These include interviews with involved parties, photographs, and press clippings related to the President Cleveland surgery. The interviews include typed reflections recorded in 1916 by John F. Erdmann, Kasson C. Gibson, and Elias Cornelius Benedict regarding their involvement in President Cleveland’s surgery. Also included in the series are notes written by Robert Maitland O’Reilly, Ferdinand Hasbrouck, and Joseph Decatur Bryant recounting their actions surrounding the day of President Cleveland’s surgery. While the notes were initially written at the time of the event, notes in this series were transcribed and typed around 1916. Photographs in the series include images of the cheek retractor used for President Cleveland’s surgery, as well as his jaw cast. The press clippings contain assembled and retyped dispatches made by E. J. Edwards, under the pen name “Holland,” relaying his coverage of the President’s surgery. The clippings also include assembled and retyped newspaper accounts of John F. Erdmann’s and Kasson C. Gibson’s actions surrounding the President’s surgery.

The “News Clippings” series contains assembled newspaper articles and headlines covering both the 1893 controversy surrounding President Cleveland’s surgery, as well as the article published by Keen in the Saturday Evening Post. Particularly noteworthy are the clippings from 1893, reflecting the tense battles between the Cleveland administration’s Democratic supporters and their various opponents. Democrat-supporting newspapers accused journalists such as E. J. Edwards of stirring unwarranted “calamities” about the President’s health for self-interest and financial gain. Most of the news clippings are very fragile due to their age and adhesion with glue to a scrapbook. Care was taken to photocopy the clippings and place them in Mylar sleeves, however many of the clippings remain attached to the original scrapbook as removing them would cause permanent damage.

The series dates include 1893 and 1917, and is arranged alphabetically.


  • 1893, 1905, 1915-1918


Biographical/Historical note

William Williams Keen (1837-1932) was a prominent neurological pathologist from Philadelphia, and the first brain surgeon in the United States. A graduate of Philadelphia Central High School and Brown University (1859), Keen received his MD from Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University) in 1862. Throughout his accomplished career, Keen worked as the Acting Assistant Surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War from 1862 to 1864; lectured on pathology and surgery at Jefferson Medical College from 1866 to 1875 and 1889 to 1907; formed the Philadelphia School of Anatomy in 1875; and published on a variety of surgical topics. Some of Keen’s works include Reflexive Paralysis: The Result of Gunshot Wounds (1864) and Gunshot Wounds and Other injuries to Nerves (1864), both co-authored with S. Weir Mitchell and George R. Morehouse relating their observations of surgeries conducted during the Civil War. Keen also wrote or edited numerous anatomical works published in Gray’s Anatomy in 1887 and 1938, as well as co-authored the book Surgery its Principles and Practices with James White, considered a seminal text on the subject upon its publication in 1892.

Keen also gained national attention for his then-secret surgery performed on President Grover Cleveland in 1893. In mid-June 1893, White House physician Dr. Robert Maitland O’Reilly diagnosed a large growth along the roof of President Cleveland’s as a malignant tumor. An alarmed Frances Folsom Cleveland (President Cleveland’s wife) subsequently requested family friend Dr. Joseph Decatur Bryant to inspect President Cleveland. Concluding that the growth needed to be removed, Dr. Bryant summoned a team of prominent surgeons, including William Williams Keen. On July 1st, 1893, surgery on the President’s mouth took place aboard the yacht Oneida, and the growth was removed through the partial removal of the President’s jaw. According to Keen’s notes recounting the events of the day, “Dr. Janeway had watched [President Cleveland’s] pulse and his general condition. Dr. [Ferdinand] Hasbrouck administered the gas and Dr. [Robert Maitland] O’Reilly the ether and Dr. [Joseph Decatur] Bryant performed the operation assisted by Doctor [William Williams] Keen and Dr. [John F.] Erdmann.”

Given the tumultuous financial situation facing the United States at the time, the President’s surgery was kept secret so as not to further destabilize the already fragile markets. The President’s trip on the Oneida was billed as a “fishing trip” by the White House, and all efforts were made to disguise the intent of the President’s absence from Washington. Some journalists, most notably E. J. Edwards, caught wind of the true reason for President Cleveland’s Oneida trip, and on August 29th, 1893, The Philadelphia Press ran Edwards’ article recounting the event, titled, “The President A Very Sick Man.” Edwards’ claims were summarily dismissed by the White House, and his journalistic integrity was attacked by both the Cleveland administration and his contemporaries in the Democrat-supporting newspapers of the day. As a result, the truth on the details of the surgery remained murky for nearly twenty five years.

That was until William Williams Keen, with the permission of President Cleveland’s former wife, published his account of President Cleveland’s surgery in a Saturday Evening Post article on September 22nd, 1917. Keen had refreshed himself with the details of the surgery by corresponding with Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston (having remarried in 1913), Annette Bryant (wife of Joseph Decatur Bryant), Kasson C. Gibson (the doctor overseeing President Cleveland’s dental cast), Elias Cornelius Benedict (owner of the Oneida), and even E. J. Edwards regarding Edwards’ sources of information. The resulting article was widely disseminated, and many of Keen’s friends and colleagues sent him enthusiastic letters thanking him for the clarification. The article also confirmed many of E. J. Edward’s initial reports, vindicating the journalist’s work, for which Edwards was very grateful to Keen. Keen subsequently wrote a longer account of the surgery, which became a monograph and sent to friends, colleagues, and interested parties.


-Algeo, Matthew. 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. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011.

-Stone, James L. "W. W. Keen: America's Pioneer Neurological Surgeon." Neurosurgery 17 (6) (1985): 997-1010.

-Thomas Jefferson University, "10 Notable Jefferson Alumni from the Past: William Williams Keen." Accessed August 15th, 2011.


0.42 Linear feet

Language of Materials



This collection documents William Williams Keen’s role in President Grover Cleveland’s 1893 then-secret surgery through Keen’s correspondence and reflections. Given the tumultuous financial markets at the time, President Cleveland’s health was kept secret, with Keen being entrusted to perform a quick yet safe surgery on the President while aboard the yacht Oneida. The collection primarily covers developments surrounding two events: the surgery on July 1st, 1893, and the publication of Keen’s Saturday Evening Post article which appeared on September 22nd, 1917. The collection contains three series: “Correspondence,” “Assembled Notes,” and “News Clippings.”
William Williams Keen's Material Related to the Operation of President Cleveland
Finding aid prepared by Forrest Wright
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Repository Details

Part of the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Repository

19 S. 22nd Street
Philadelphia PA 19103 United States