King George VI had surgery for lung cancer in the 1950s.
Alex Bailey/Netflix

What Surgery Did King George VI Have?

The king died tragically young, leaving the throne to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

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Like in real life, sometimes the details of illness depicted on a TV series can be confusing. Just prior to the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, her father underwent lung surgery. The Crown made it clear that he was in poor health, but what surgery did King George VI have?

As The Crown depicts, King George required a pneumonectomy, or the removal of his left lung, after cancerous tumors were discovered. Although the removal of cancer cells from lung tissue is the most common cause for pneumonectomy, according to Johns Hopkins, traumatic lung injury, pulmonary tuberculosis, infection, and bronchial blockage can also prompt the need for the same surgery.

To keep a veil of privacy over the seriousness of the King's health, surgeons simply noted "structural changes" in the lung that required its removal, instead of publicly disclosing that he had cancer. True to Royal form — on the show and IRL — many details of the surgery were shrouded in secrecy, but the completion of surgery was announced via a bulletin posted on the gates of Buckingham Palace the day of the operation, Saturday, Sept. 23, 1951, BBC reported. The bulletin noted that the King’s “post-operative condition is satisfactory.”

King George's 1951 surgery really did take place on the first floor of Buckingham palace, as depicted in the show, with surgeons creating a makeshift operating theater in an effort to keep the status of the King's health under wraps. Clement Price Thomas was the lead surgeon on the case, according to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, and he was promptly named a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order for his service to the crown once King George VI resumed his duties after surgery.

Interestingly, The Crown used a real team of surgeons instead of actors to shoot the pneumonectomy scene, according to the Daily Mail. Episode director Stephen Daldry enlisted the help of Pankaj Chandak, a Specialist Registrar in transplant surgery, to bring in his team for the episode. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Chandak said, "Once we’d settled in it felt like a normal day in the operating theatre."

In addition to his lung tumors, King George also suffered a hardening of his arterial walls, and serious blockages in his arteries, mostly due to his heavy smoking. He nearly required the amputation of his leg once due to a blood clot, Time reported. It was believed that the stress of taking up the throne unexpectedly after his brother abdicated the throne, in addition to becoming King of England during a time of war, contributed to King George's poor health.

In most cases, a pneumonectomy to remove lung cancer is successful as long as the cancer cells have not spread to other areas of the body, Harvard Health noted, but long-term complications can include dependence on a ventilator, problems with blood clotting, fluid accumulation, as well as heart and kidney problems. Ultimately, King George never fully recovered from his pneumonectomy and died in his sleep when a blood clot formed in his heart.

Although King George died tragically young, his death gave rise to the longest reign in British monarchal history. Queen Elizabeth II's accession at the age of 25 rocked Great Britain and vastly changed the trajectory of her own life. One of the facets of her rule Netflix's The Crown explores is how she got there. Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth II in the show’s first two seasons, said that when Elizabeth and Philip went on their royal tour in 1952 in her father King George VI's stead, "She and Philip had thought she wouldn’t have to take the throne for another 20 years, but their lives changed in an instant,” the Daily Mail reported.

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