By John H. Mather M.D
Our abiding image of Churchill in World War II is that of an indomitable spirit. Rarely do we consider where he found the energy, at the age of 65, to direct the war effort. What were his sources of physical, mental and spiritual toughness?
He had developed a physical resilience, mental hardiness and personal toughness, and the subtle interplay among these characteristics makes a healthy person. Churchill identified his early years with those of his ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough: “Famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.”
His relationships shaped his personality and temperament. He found solace from his nanny, Mrs. Everest, and many other sources of internal fortitude, commenting in The River War: “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong, and a boy deprived of a father’s care often developes, if he escape the perils of youth, an independence and vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.”
In 1940 he assumed office at an age when most people retire, when their vital forces begin to decline. Yet he appeared not only indomitable, but also indefatigable. He enthusiastically assumed the greatest job of his life during the most fearful and intense war in his country’s history.
Over this five-year period he maintained with evident relish a work schedule which might have exhausted most men of his age, and indeed did wear out some of his colleagues and contemporaries. During this period he may have suffered a heart attack and had several bouts of pneumonia, which in earlier days would have killed or disabled him. After his recovery recovery from each of three pneumonia attacks, he continued to maintain a grueling schedule of work, with few periods of rest and relaxation apart from his afternoon naps.
He conquered his predisposition towards melancholia during the war with a personality that found comfort in his loving and supportive family. His daughter, Lady Soames, who spent a lot of time with him during the war, recalls: “Papa had this enormous quality of never despairing.” He took life in stride, finding equanimity in laughter and fun, which contributed to his overall good health and longevity. Contrary to what is popularly believed, he did not take himself, his friends or his enemies too seriously.
Churchill was not the only leader who had to bear up under duress. At Yalta in 1945, he was likely not the “sick man at the table”—a phrase coined by detractors to describe Roosevelt. The President, recorded Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, “sat looking straight ahead with his mouth open, as if he were not taking things in. Everyone was shocked by his appearance.”
Churchill stands out among the notables of this century not least because of his stamina and the way he maintained it. Yet despite his towering image, from a medical standpoint he was as human as any of us. Had he been an ordinary mortal, his medical history would be of no interest. He was anything but ordinary.
Although in later life advancing age made him less buoyant, there can be little or no doubt about his physical resilience and mental hardiness. At the age of 57, Churchill himself captured the essence of his own toughness: “The more serious physical wounds are often surprisingly endurable at the moment they are received. There is an interval of uncertain length before sensation is renewed. The shock numbs but does not paralyze, the wound bleeds but does not smart. So it is with the great reverses of life.”*
Dr. Mather is Secretary of The Churchill Center. His articles on Lord Randolph Churchill and Lady Randolph appeared respectively in Finest Hour 93 and 98.
* “My New York Misadventure” Daily Mail, 3 January 1932
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