Jan 23rd 2015

Winston Churchill and his 'black dog' of greatness

by Nassir Ghaemi

Professor of Psychiatry, School of Medicine at Tufts University
It was 1930. Winston Churchill was a 55-year-old Conservative Party politician who had been a member of parliament for three decades. He had eventually risen to the position of chancellor of the exchequer six years earlier but, in the peace and prosperity of the 1920s, had done a terrible job. Neville Chamberlain, who, as mayor of Birmingham, had run the city for years, would later manage the treasury much better.

The Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was impressed by one man more than the other. When he retired in 1937, Baldwin selected Chamberlain to succeed him.

People liked Chamberlain; he was calm, sober, polite, friendly. Churchill was more inscrutable, as likely to insult as to charm dinner party guests. He drank a lot, reputedly admitting: “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” He was irascible, self-assured to the point of arrogance, and wilful. Many who shared his conservative politics couldn’t stomach his erratic nature. Chamberlain provided conservatism without the drama. He was much preferred by his peers.

It was 1940. Hitler had torn up Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement, a settlement signed in 1938 that allowed for Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia and the creation of a new territory called Sudetenland. At the height of Chamberlain’s popularity in 1938, and to boos in the House of Commons chamber, Churchill had said of the pact: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour; you chose dishonour and will have war."

War came, despite a decade where Britain and its leaders (namely Baldwin and Chamberlain) had tried to pretend otherwise. After the invasion of Poland, it was clear to all that Churchill had been right. The king offered him the premiership and both Conservative and Labour MPs shuddered: were they putting the country in that man’s hands?

Roosevelt, Canada’s William Lyon Mackenzie King and Winston Churchill in 1943. BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, CC BY

The ‘black dog’

Little did they know how shaky those hands were. For decades, Churchill had avoided standing too close to balconies and train platforms:

I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.

Churchill knew it and named it his “black dog”, following Samuel Johnson (who, like many great men, suffered from the great disease of manic-depression).

For months on end, Churchill was so paralysed by despair that he couldn’t get out of bed to attend the simplest session of parliament. He had no energy, no interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. He was completely non-functional – and this didn’t just happen once or twice in the 1930s, but also in the 1920s and 1910s and earlier. These darker periods would last a few months, and then he’d come out of it and be his normal self.

In an early letter to his wife Clementine in 1911, after hearing a friend’s wife had received some help for depression from a German doctor, he wrote:

I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.

But normal for Churchill was in a sense also rather abnormal: when he wasn’t severely depressed and low in energy and lying in bed, Churchill had very high energy levels. He wouldn’t go to sleep until two or three in the morning, instead staying up and dictating his dozens of books. He would talk incessantly in a tantivy of whirling thoughts. So much so that the then US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, once said of him: “He has a thousand ideas a day, four of which are good.” These are manic symptoms, part of the disease of manic-depression (which includes but is not exactly the same thing as today’s “bipolar” illness terminology).

After some time, Churchill would go back into months of not talking, not having any ideas, not having any energy. And then he’d be back up again. His mood swings were more than likely related to why Churchill drank so heavily.

To whom fate was entrusted

This was the life of the man to whom the fate of Britain was being entrusted. Britain couldn’t afford Churchill to become depressed and despairing and non-functional for months during the war. Thankfully, there was another man standing behind Churchill: his physician Lord Moran. Moran prescribed amphetamines for Churchill in later years for his depressive episodes and a barbituate from 1940 to help him sleep.

Despite all this, historians haven’t wanted to admit it: how could a great man have severe depression (much less manic-depression, which is likely more correct)? Even the great writer William Manchester in his posthumous 2012 biography, The Last Lion, rejected the evidence of Churchill’s psychiatric disease.

Deify and deny: great men cannot be ill, certainly not mentally ill.

But what if was they are not only ill; what if they are great, not in spite of manic-depression but because of it?

My recent research has suggested that in times of crisis, it is sometimes those who are seen as quirky, odd or with a mental disorder that show the greatest leadership. Mania enhances creativity and resilience to trauma, while depression increases realism and empathy. Churchill was a creative, resilient and realistic leader, and empathic to Jews at a time of common British anti-Semitism.

We don’t want to allow biology into social matters. Churchill was great, we believe, because of some ineffable greatness about him. But we exist in and experience our bodies: We aren’t pure spirits. Biology can have an influence too.

It was late 1940. A shaken Chamberlain had succumbed to metastatic cancer. Churchill, joining the pallbearers, gave his former nemesis a generous eulogy:

In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nassir Ghaemi MD MPH is an academic psychiatrist specializing in mood illnesses, especially bipolar disorder. He is Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Mood Disorders Program. He is a also a Clinical Lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and teaches at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

In the past, he trained and worked mostly in the Boston area, mainly in Harvard-affiliated hospitals (McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Cambridge Hospital). He has also worked at George Washington University, and Emory University. His medical degree is from the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University.

His clinical work and research has focused on depression and manic-depressive illness. In this work, he has published over 100 scientific articles, over 30 scientific book chapters, and he has written or edited a number of books. He serves on a number of editorial boards of psychiatric journals, is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and previously was chairman of the Diagnostic Guidelines Task Force of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD).

After his medical training, he obtained an MA in philosophy from Tufts University in 2001, and a MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004. Outside of his clinical work and research, his main interests are in philosophy and public health. His interests in philosophy center on understanding the mind and mental illness, but also extend to an interest in Islamic thinkers and Sufism. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry.

Born in Tehran, Iran, he immigrated to the US at the age of 5 with his family and was raised in McLean, Virginia by his father Kamal Ghaemi MD, a neurosurgeon and neurologist, and his mother Guity Kamali Ghaemi, an art historian. A graduate of McLean High School (1984), he received a BA in history from George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, 1986).

He is an active writer, and besides his books, he maintains two active blogs, and contributes posts or articles to other sites and magazines.

To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."