RIP: Dr. Robert McClelland, the most important JFK witness

Dr. Robert McClelland saw JFK’s wounds up close on November 22, 1963.

Dr. Robert McClelland, the surgeon who oversaw the effort to save President Kennedy’s life in 1963, died earlier this month at age 89.  In his interviews, you sense a man of considerable dignity, humility, and integrity. It comes as no surprise that he self-published an anthology of writings on surgery to which thousands of doctors subscribed. He was both a teacher and doctor, an instructor and  a healer. And it is those qualities that make McClelland one of the most important witnesses to JFK’s assassination.

In 1963, McClelland was 34 years old. He had just become the chief of surgery at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital. When the mortally wounded JFK was brought to Trauma Room One, McClelland stood over the dying president and participated in the efforts to save him. He observed the president’s fatal head wound for about 10 minutes from a distance of less than two feet.

“My God,” he recalled saying to his colleagues. “Have you seen the back of his head. There’s a wound in the back of his head that’s about five inches in diameter.”

After about ten minutes, Kennedy’s breathing and heartbeat ceased. The Secret Service came and took the body away.

‘From the grassy knoll’

McClelland concluded, on the basis of what he saw that day, and what he saw in a home movie of the assassination taken by a bystander, that Kennedy had been struck by a gunshot fired from in front, not behind.

“That bullet came from the grassy knoll, the picket fence,” McClelland said of the fatal shot, referring to the area in front of the presidential motorcade at the moment the shots rang out.

Dr. McClelland indicates where President Kennedy was fatally wounded.

How the New York Times handled McClelland’s eye-witness testimony is a textbook case of the journalism profession’s strange approach to the JFK assassination story. McClelland was a superb witness. Only one trained medical professional (his friend and colleague Dr. Kemp Clark) had a close a view of Kennedy’s head wound so soon after he was shot. McClelland went on to a distinguished career.

Yet the Times did not report what he saw and what he said about JFK’s head wound until he was dead. For some reason, McClelland’s testimony, contradicting the Warren Commission, was not regarded as news. The Times obituary gingerly avoids any suggestion that McClelland might have been right or that his testimony was unique. In the headline, the Times reported that McClelland saw the “gravity” of the President’s wound, not that he expressed a judgment about the shot from the front. In fact, he was a credible eyewitness whose well-informed account undermined the government’s much-disputed version of events

McClelland didn’t believe in “wild conspiracy theories,” the Times assures us. The rather more relevant point, of course, is that he did not believe in the equally implausible anti-conspiracy theories of the Warren Commission, the CIA, the FBI, and  Dallas Police Department, which hold that Lee Harvey Oswald–whose travels, politics and foreign contacts were known to certain senior CIA officers– shot JFK for no discernible reason.

McClelland’s account is consistent with the accounts of 21 police officers at the crime scene who also thought gunfire had come from in front of JFK’s limousine.

[Here is a 2013 video of McClelland explaining the nature of JKF’s wounds. to another doctor. He describes the wound at 5:50. He talks about the effect of treating JFK on his life at 15:50. He talks about the wound in JFK’s neck at 17:00. He talks about the meaning of Abraham Zapruder’s film at 19:30. ]

Was he right?

Grassy knoll aftermath
A cop runs toward the area known as “the grassy knoll” moments after President Kennedy was shot. Dr. McClelland concluded the fatal shot had come from that area.

McClelland was mistaken, say defenders of the official theory. Pay him no mind, they say. Just look at the JFK autopsy photos in the National Archives. But the autopsy photos cannot disprove McClelland’s account if they do not depict the wounds that he saw. And there is sworn testimony that they do not.

Navy doctors conducted an autopsy on JFK about eight hours after Dr. McClelland saw him. The Secret Service had transported the president’s body from Parkland to Air Force One, which then flew from Dallas to Washington where the body was taken to Bethesda Medical Center. The autopsy was conducted around 8 pm Eastern time in the evening.

One of the pathologists who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Pierre Finck, came to very different conclusion than McClelland. “It was very obvious that it [the fatal shot] came from the back and exited the front,” Finck told a reporter in 1992.

Do the autopsy photographs resolve the two doctor’s differences? Do they prove Finck right?

Not really. Photographs of the autopsy were developed on Sunday, November 24, 1963, by Sandra Spencer, the chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy’s photography lab in Washington. Spencer was interviewed under oath by the JFK Assassination Records Review Board in June 1997. With the crisp, detail-oriented style of a career military officer, she described in detail how the photographs were made, what they showed, and how they were developed.

When shown the JFK autopsy photos now held in the National Archives, Spencer said, flatly and unequivocally, they were not the photographs she developed after JFK’s death. The head wound she saw on the photographs she developed was much larger than the National Archives photo, she said. The photographic paper was different too.

Then she said this:

“Between those photographs and the ones we did, there had to be some massive cosmetic things done to the President’s body.”

If Spencer is right–and she was testifying under oath–the autopsy photos don’t refute McClelland because they show “massive cosmetic things done to the President’s body” after it was removed from Dallas.

The accounts of McClelland and Sandra Spencer tell a disturbing story that cannot be wished away. Their accounts undermine the official story and demonstrate that we still do not have the full story of JFK’s death 56 years after the fact.

McClelland believed his eyes, not the theories of people who were not there, and he wasn’t afraid to state the truth as saw it. No doubt there will be posthumous efforts by critics to discredit him, which are doomed to failure given his experience and integrity. He is one of the most important and credible JFK witnesses. Anyone who wants to know the truth about JFK’s assassination is indebted to him.

RIP Dr. Robert McClelland.

Source: Dr. Robert McClelland, Who Tried to Save President Kennedy, Dies at 89 – The New York Times


  1. Very nice Jeff, wonderful you quoted Spencer. Neither the WC nor the HSCA called her

  2. Greg Otterman says:

    He was truly an an unimpeachable witness as you termed it years ago thanks Jeff

  3. Bravo, Jeff!

    Even Humes told the ARRB that, even after embalming, JFK’s scalp failed to cover 3-4 cm of the hole. Humes’s statement is a near perfect match to Spencer’s depiction—but you will never find this corroboration in the New York Times, so save your pennies.

    Of course McClelland was accurate. His statement (and video) is nakedly unimpeachable eyewitness recollection. Who would know more than Mac?

    David Mantik

  4. Overall this is a great obituary of Dr. McClelland, but I need to correct a misstatement in the article.

    In reference to Navy Photographer’s Mate Saundra Spencer (a Navy E-6 non-commissioned officer, or NCO), the article makes a misstatement about Saundra Spencer’s work, as follows: “…they were not the photographs she took the day after JFK’s death.”

    I’m going to offer a friendly correction below to Jeff Morley, someone whose work in service to the cause of truth in the JFK assassination I respect: Saundra Spencer did not TAKE any post mortem photos of JFK’s body; instead, she DEVELOPED post mortem photos of JFK’s body taken by someone else. She was not present at the autopsy.

    But this correction aside, the importance of what she developed on Sunday, November 24th, 1963 is undeniable, and is important for two reasons: (1) they were post-embalming photos, taken after restorative work and reconstruction of his cranium and his body, which showed the President’s body “cleaned-up,” with no blood visible anymore and no longer with any open body cavities; and (2) the fact that she developed a key photo of the back of JFK’s head—after cranial reconstruction—nevertheless showing a 2-2.5 inch open cavity in the occipital bone in the skull (what she called a “blown-out chunk”), blatantly contradicts the so-called “intact” back-of-the-head photos presently in the official autopsy collection.

    Summarizing, Saundra Spencer provided testimony to the ARRB about the post mortem photos of JFK she developed, following reconstruction of JFK’s cranium by Gawler’s Funeral Home personnel, stating that there was STILL a defect in the back of his skull entirely consistent with an exit wound, i.e., evidence of a shot from the front. This not only contradicts the Warren Commission’s conclusions, but contradicts the so-called “official autopsy photos” showing the back of JFK’s head to apparently be intact at the autopsy.

    Thus, Spencer’s initial telephone interview with the ARRB late in 1996 and her sworn testimony to the ARRB in 1997 both corroborated Dr. McClelland’s clear recollection, under oath in 1964, of what could only have been a large wound of exit in the back of JFK’s head. Put simply, even after reconstruction of JFK’s cranium by the embalmers, there was still a significant hole in the back of his head—unambiguous evidence of a fatal shot from the front (not from the rear, where the accused assassin was located in the TSBD).

    The General Counsel at the ARRB, T. Jeremy Gunn—my boss on the ARRB staff—told me he considered Saundra Spencer the most credible of all of the ARRB’s medical witnesses.

    What Spencer’s testimony provides is not only evidence of a fatal shot from the front, but it identifies a serious problem with some of the extant photos in the official autopsy collection that resides today in the National Archives. [The 6 to 8 color negatives developed by Spencer, and the two color prints made from each of the negatives Spencer developed, never made it into the official collection.]

    I’m glad that Jeff Morley wrote about the importance of Dr. McClelland’s observations in Trauma Room One at Parkland, and that he wrote about how Saundra Spencer’s testimony before the ARRB in 1997 corroborated McClelland’s testimony before the Warren Commission in 1964.

    The key thing to understand here is that both Spencer and McClelland recalled a large wound (entirely consistent with a wound of exit and not with a wound of entry) in the back of JFK’s skull.

    In fact, McClelland told Arlen Specter under oath in 1964 that he estimated that about one third of JFK’s brain tissue was missing from the posterior portion of his brain—both cerebral and cerebellar tissue. This was overwhelming evidence of an exit wound in the back of JFK’s skull which blatantly contradicted the Warren Commission’s conclusions of a lone assassin shooting from behind. Instead of publishing McClelland’s testimony in the Warren Commission Report itself, the Commission unsuccessfully tried to bury it in the 26 volumes of supporting evidence.

    That did not work, and throughout the remainder of his life, McClelland courageously stuck to his story: it was obvious to him that President Kennedy was shot from the front, and that the wound he observed in the back of President Kennedy’s head was the exit wound from that shot. END

    Douglas Horne,
    Former Chief Analyst for Military Records, ARRB

  5. Bogman says:

    McClelland spent a good part of his retirement telling anyone who would listen what he saw. Again, the mainstream media doesn’t report even the simplest of truths around the JFK assassination, starting with Dan Rather and his “mistake” about JFK being thrown violently forward from the head shot.

    It’s just incredible. Who or what do they think they are protecting? It ain’t democracy or free speech, I guarantee you that.

  6. Thomas Lipscomb says:

    Add the terrific Spencer material, and Mantik’s contribution, and you have one of the most solid contributions on this indispensable site

  7. Gary Aguilar says:

    Kennedy’s autopsy photographs have been the subject of considerable controversy. Whereas in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1992, JFK’s chief autopsy surgeon, James Humes, MD, praised the senior autopsy photographer, John Stringer, as “one of the best medical photographers in the world,” not a single acceptable image of the President’s fatal skull wound is to be found anywhere in the official inventory. And yet Dr. Humes and Dr. Finck testified that they took such images, including the inside and outside of JFK’s skull wound to show the telltale signs of a bullet entrance, “beveling.”

    ARRB-declassified documents hint at a possible explanation: evidence destruction. All three of JFK’s pathologists, both autopsy photographers, a White House photographer Robert Knudsen, and, as Jeff mentioned, National Photographic Center employee Sandra Spencer, have all testified that photographs taken at JFK’s autopsy are missing.

  8. Eldon Krugman says:

    Contained in Dr. Randolph Robertson’s report, “A Review at the National Archives of the ARRB enhancements of the exposed roll of 120 Ektachrome E3 film from the JFK autopsy” are three photos that Kodak was able to recover and print in 1998. The third photo, designated A1.02, and titled “Right Superior Profile” on page 6/9 of the report shows an abnormality at the forehead which correlates with the location of Dr. McClelland’s entry wound as indicated in the photo in this post. AMAZING1 In the 20,063 nights since the assassination,, I have revisited the events of that day and the days that followed at least 100 times. Today, I am 99.99 percent certain that the bullet in Frame 313 did not come from the Texas School Depository Building and so many articles and videos released since 2000 solidify that position. How Dr. McClelland could remain a beacon of truth in the avalanche of obfuscation and not succumb to sinister forces is astounding. Dr. McClelland’s proximity to this tragic event is only superseded by Jacqueline Kennedy and Abraham Zapruder.

  9. Steven L. Boyer says:

    Had the autopsy been conducted by the Coroner, Dr. Rose, in Dallas think of all the controversy that we could have been spared.

  10. When Dr McClelland’s issues with the official version of wounding got mentioned at all (the Economist saw no reason to go there) it focused on his belief that the throat wound best fit a wound of entrance. That he concluded that the medical evidence of the head wound he saw before him dovetails with the physics of what the Zapruder film shows (and together they mean the fatal blow had to have come from the knoll) was, and is, news. Thanks for pointing this out Jeff.

  11. HIDEJI OKINA says:

    I’m Japanese assassination researcher. Oh! His explanation about JFK’s head entry wound position changed again and again.I think he is worst witness. JFK’s research world is so bad! With Jacob Cater interview,he said he is only witness who can see JFK’s back of head wound.Except him,parkland witness are all liar?
    Mr.Morley please update my comment.I see your interview from Japanese TV documentary(With Mr.Posner,Mr.McAdams),in past,my interview on-air this document.

  12. Dick Mullaney says:

    I always thought that Jackie’s action of climbing to he rear/ trunk of the limo to gather JFK’s brain matter was clear evidence of a shot from the front. And obviously consistent with what “Dr Mac” saw. Some great reporting here by J Morley.

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