On This Day: King George VI has operation for fatal lung cancer

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: King George VI has operation for fatal lung cancer

SEPTEMBER 23, 1951: King George VI had his cancerous left lung removed on this day in 1951 in an operation that sent waves of fear among Britons.

The heavy smoker, whose ill health was partly brought on by the stresses of war and restoring faith in the monarchy, never recovered and died five months later at age 56.

The public, who were extraordinarily fond of him and had noticed his ill health, were only being told about part of his lung being removed due to “structural changes”.

But they feared the worst for George, who had only reluctantly taken over from his brother King Edward VIII after his 1936 abdication sparked a constitutional crisis.

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A British Pathé newsreel filmed anxious crowds waiting for news outside the gates of the Buckingham Palace, the London home he refused to leave during the Blitz.

It also filmed Edward’s ominous return from France, where he had been exiled since quitting the throne so that he could marry unpopular U.S. divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Yet, in spite of medical fears that George would not survive the operation, the king withstood the surgery - to the relief of many of his adoring subjects.

The operation was a relatively successful treatment for his lung cancer, although he still suffered from a host of other ailments, including heart condition arteriosclerosis, and his reduced ability to breathe left him in a weakened state.

He died from a coronary thrombosis on February 7, 1952 – just eight days after saying goodbye to his daughter Elizabeth, who would return from Kenya as Queen.

His relatively short 15-year reign encompassed one of the most tumultuous periods in British history.

Born Albert Frederick Arthur George in 1895 as the second son of King George V and Queen Mary, stammering Bertie long lived in the shadow of effervescent Edward.

But all that changed with his older brother’s abdication, which was triggered because the Government threatened to resign if he married Mrs Simpson.

This could have dragged him into a general election and would ruin his status as a politically neutral, constitutional monarch.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin believed that, although Edward was popular, people would not accept a divorced woman living with two living ex-husbands as queen.

Marrying Mrs Simpson would also have conflicted with Edward being head of the Church of England, which opposed the remarriages of divorced people with living  former spouses.

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So, just 326 days into his short reign, Edward abdicated on December 11, 1936 in order to marry the woman he loved.

With monarchy discredited (Labour MP George Hardie said the crisis did “more for republicanism than 50 years of propaganda”) the new sovereign tried to restore trust.

Rather than Albert, he decided to rule as King George VI to emphasise continuity with his father.

But with war brewing, he had bigger problems ahead of him.

George, who continued to be called Bertie by his family, had to reassure the nation that it could stand up to German might and aggression.

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Having battled his stammer with the help of speech therapy – as depicted in The King’s Speech movie – he gave the greatest radio address of any monarch.

He also won back the people’s trust by insisting on staying in London despite ministers advising him to leave.

Indeed, Buckingham Palace was palace was bombed a total of seven times, with his wife, the Queen Mother saying the damage let her to “look the East End in the face”.

After the war, George had to lead a Britain mired in austerity and with its empire in rapid terminal decline.

He weathered those trials too, but in the end they shortened his life.