February 18, 2015

Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014

Page 46

By John H. Mather M. D.

Churchill: The Supreme Survivor, by A.W. Beasley. Mercer books, 216 pages, £20 from the publisher plus shipping; see http://bit.ly/MoUZ0Q.

A. W. Beasley, a retired orthopedic surgeon in New Zealand with a keen interest in medical history and biography, fills a niche in Churchill studies with this record of Sir Winston’s medical conditions. The book reiterates much that is known, albeit scattered in various publications, but also adds fresh information from sources such as the Churchill Archives Centre. Stylistically the text is clear, with quotations in bold format, richly enhanced with many illustrations not previously seen in print.

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Designed to attract a broad spectrum of readers, the book is notably free of medical jargon, and its review of medical practice in Churchill’s time is one of its qualities. Clear explanations in lay language address the significance of each medical problem and the efficacy of its treatment. Unfortunately the discussion of Churchill’s depression is misleading because it does not recognize it as a component of a likely mood disorder or a “cyclothymic personality,” as diagnosed by Sir Winston’s neurologist, Lord Brain.

The first nine chapters present Churchill’s medical history for each decade of his life, concluding with a table summarizing his medical problems. The tenth and final chapter summarizes some of his personality traits, commenting on his sense of invincibility, his alleged poor judgment, the effects of alcohol, his fascination with hats and uniforms, and his adoption of the V-sign. Beasley also offers a critical evaluation of Lord Moran, Churchill’s primary physician from 1940 through 1965.

Each chapter carries thoughtful but not exhaustive references and notes. One curious omission is reference to Churchill’s Last Years by Roy Howells, WSC’s personal nurse after 1958. References to other relevant papers and articles might have provided a more scholarly and complete account, but would have also required further analysis by the author. For example: was Churchill’s speech impediment a lisp or a stutter? Among Moran’s many prescribed medications, was there a stimulant (amphetamine), and if so, when was it taken?

Had Dr. Beasley obtained full access to Moran’s medical papers on Churchill at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, and those of the orthopedist Professor Seddon at the Royal College of Surgeons, some of his observations and conclusions might have been different. For instance, the cardiologist Sir John Parkinson saw Churchill after his purported heart attack in December 1941 and corrected the Prime Minister’s claim of a coronary thrombosis. “He may have had a temporary embarrassment of the circulation (to his heart),” wrote Parkinson, “but there was nothing to prove this.”

The book ends with brief biographical sketches of those around Churchill, including many of his physicians and surgeons. Neither here nor elsewhere are they all identified. Missing are the ENT surgeon Wilson, who regularly sprayed Churchill’s throat prior to his speeches; the dermatologists MacCormack and MacKenna, who treated WSC for persistent skin diseases; and the ophthalmologists King and Juler, who managed his recurrent eye infections.

The most peculiar thread is the author’s animus toward Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician from 1940 to the end of his life. Here he builds upon themes developed in a 2010 paper, where he castigated Moran for publishing his 1966 book Churchill: The Struggle for Survival 1940-1965. Beasley dismisses Churchill’s depression as a “largely Moran-inspired myth,” adding: “as a historian Moran was a fraudster”: a man whose nickname, Corkscrew Charlie, “attests to his devious character.” Finally Beasley acknowledges “the meanness I have had to record of Lord Moran himself.” Ironically, much of the book relies heavily on Moran’s descriptions.

Lord Moran was criticized by some of Churchill’s close friends for cashing in on his professional relationship immediately after Sir Winston died, and historians have noted that some of what is in his book is not in Moran’s contemporary diaries. But this is not the whole story, as Lady Soames has observed: “Lord Moran understood my father thoroughly and he was indeed fortunate he had as his doctor a man who understood not only the medical considerations and risks to his patient, but who was fully aware of the implications, with regard to the office he held, of his condition at any time.” That is a more balanced perspective than we get in this book.

But this is not to suggest that Dr. Beasley’s work is anything but a “must” for anyone wishing to understand the effects of Churchill’s illnesses on his career. The book particularly demonstrates Churchill’s lifelong resilience and amazing hardiness. The title is most fitting—he was the “Supreme Survivor.” The author increases our appreciation of WSC’s fortitude and determination to overcome his many medical problems.

Dr. Mather is a former board member of The Churchill Centre and a longtime researcher of Sir Winston Churchill’s medical history.

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