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.
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?
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.