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What Surgery Did King George VI Have? 'The Crown' Depicts His Illness

Alex Bailey/Netflix

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 plays Queen Elizabeth II, noted that when Elizabeth and Philip went on their royal tour in 1952 in her 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." 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. It's true that, 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. In addition to lung tumors, however, 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. 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. Ultimately, however, he never fully recovered from his pneumonectomy and died in his sleep when a blood clot formed in his heart.

Alex Bailey/Netflix

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, 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. Episode director Stephen Daldry enlisted the help of Pankaj Chandak, a Specialist Registrar in transplant surgery, to bring in his team for the episode. Said Chandak in an interview with Daily Mail, "Once we’d settled in it felt like a normal day in the operating theatre."

Although King George died tragically young, his death gave rise to the longest reign in British monarchal history.