Churchill: The Supreme Survivor
"It pleases me that my friend Wyn Beasley has set about documenting the enormous and varied array of medical adventures, many of them life-threatening, that beset Churchill during his long life, and I find myself speculating on what might have been the course of history if Sir Winston had not been the supreme survivor that he was. It also pleases me that Wyn has been able to explain so many of these conditions in language that is easy for the layman to follow, and describe the management of various disorders in the pre-antibiotic days in which Sir Winston lived most of his life.

It is good that we have this new contribution to the Churchill record, and at a time when attention is once again being directed to the man who has been recognised as ‘the greatest Englishman of the twentieth century’ it is refreshing to have an account of him that breaks new ground, and provides a perspective that perhaps only a surgeon could offer."

General Sir Peter de la Billière


A gallant defence of Churchill’s health habits

"Don’t worry: this is not yet another superfluous biography of Winston Churchill. It is a book about his health, by a doctor – a retired New Zealand orthopaedic surgeon, to be precise.

If you study the famous bulldog-pose photograph by Karsh of Ottawa in 1941, which forms the frontispiece of this book, you will see quite clearly that there is a scar on Churchill’s brow. This was the result of his British tendency to look the wrong way when crossing the road in countries that are so foolish as to drive on the right. In December 1931, he was hit by a car in New York, and badly enough injured on his forehead and thighs to put him in hospital for a week. Then he got pleurisy.

Churchill’s health events provide a good insight into his life, and Beasley assists this by tabulating the great man’s afflictions at the end of each of his nine decades. In the third decade (1894-1904), for example, he suffered a knee injury steeple-chasing, a dislocated right shoulder after grabbing a ring on the wall of Bombay Harbour when landing in India for the first time, a thumb laceration when hit by a splinter from a rifle range in Bangalore, and claustrophobia and panic attacks when hiding in a mine in South Africa for three days after escaping his Boer captors. In that same decade, he had his speech defect investigated, and suffered what Beasley calls a “fugue”, drying up while speaking in the House of Commons.

In his fourth decade, he was attacked by a whip-wielding suffragette who tried to push him under a train. After the First World War, he was in a small air crash (he was the pilot). In 1921, he badly grazed his wrist when thrown from a camel as he visited the Sphinx with Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell. In 1922, his appendix was removed by the comically named Sir Crisp English.

When prime minister for the second time, in the early Fifties, Churchill went to a luncheon at Trinity House, and put down his lighted cigar into an open box of matches. He burnt his fingers. The cigars were an added medical complication, although Beasley thinks he flourished them more than he smoked them. In an unpressurised aeroplane flying to Moscow (via the Mediterranean and Tehran) in 1942, oxygen masks were issued to all passengers. Churchill had his adapted so that he could smoke his cigar while wearing it.

The real controversy about Churchill’s health, of course, concerns the Second World War and also his peacetime premiership. He was 65 years old when he first became prime minister, and although he revelled in the work, the strains were colossal. He suffered a tooth abscess in 1941, a heart attack while staying at the White House just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of that year, and pneumonia in England in 1943, followed by “full-blown” pneumonia in Carthage. He had a severe stroke when prime minister in peacetime, in June 1953, and was off work until October.

He never fully recovered his powers, though he continued in office until 1955. There is not the faintest chance that he would have been allowed to stay on, so ill, if he had lived in the 21st century, but so different were the attitudes of that time, that his stroke was successfully concealed from the public.

In discussing all this, Beasley brings an expert but clear approach. He has a nice way with him of explaining medical science with vivid analogies, such as the brain as a boxing glove. He is interesting on what was available to doctors at the time. Remember, for instance, how much more dangerous was pneumonia in the days before penicillin. And he gives a good account of the reality of treating a great man on whose health a nation’s fate depends. What is medically most advisable (eg doing nothing) may not be what is politically possible.

What really excites Beasley, however, is a tremendous animus against Charles Wilson, Lord Moran, who was Churchill’s personal physician from 1940. In the year after Churchill’s death, Moran published Churchill: The Struggle for Survival. Controversy about it has raged ever since. The book described itself as “taken from the diaries of Lord Moran”, which gave a clue that it was composed, at least in part, with the benefit of hindsight. Whatever it exactly was, the book clearly breached patient confidentiality.

Beasley takes the Churchill family’s part, not only about Moran’s breach of trust, but about his account of Churchill’s condition. He gets very angry with Moran’s idea that Churchill suffered from full depression: Moran misinterpreted Winston’s phrase “black dog” as being something special and personal, whereas it was the general term Victorian nannies – and, indeed, Dr Johnson – used to describe feeling low.

As for Moran’s claims about Churchill’s heavy drinking, Beasley minimises them. He merely had old-fashioned aristocratic habits, he says. Loyally, Beasley wishes to defend Churchill against most suggestions of decline. He publishes pictures of his signatures in 1962 and 1963 to show that the later one is better. One sympathises with his affection for Churchill.

But the inescapable fact is that, however improper, Moran’s book is utterly fascinating. One could criticise him for publishing it when he did, but one must be glad that it exists. This gallant, short book does not succeed in dethroning the fuller work of the hated Moran. But it stands on its own merits as a vivid account of Churchill’s battle between his body and his spirit."

Charles Moore, The Telegraph, 20th October 2013


"Winston Churchill's long life was plagued by a daunting list of illnesses, ranging from gum boils, pneumonia and hernias. In Churchill: The Supreme Survivor, retired New Zealand orthopaedic surgeon Wyn Beasley provides arguably the ultimate clinical dossier on a seemingly indestructible figure of the 20th century. Written in an admirably crisp, no-nonsense style and drawing on a range of sources, it gives us an absorbing medical overview of Churchill's physical and psychological health from childhood to old age. The study and diagnosis of Churchill's much-discussed depressive episodes are particularly illuminating."

Christopher Moore, New Zealand Listener, 1st March 2014


"Churchill remains ever popular into the 21st century, recently topping yet another poll as 'the greatest ever Briton'. Much has been written about him but here, at last, is a biography of Churchill that, although written for a lay readership, is of particular interest to doctors. Wyn Beasley, orthopaedic surgeon turned medical historian, is particularly well suited to describe, explain and analyse the many illnesses and injuries that beset Churchill throughout his long life, and how he survived from them. The titles is an apt one, for Churchill famously survived front-line action in two wars and more than 40 years of political conflict in the top echelons of British politics, but his survival from a long and varied catalogue of accidents and illnesses is perhaps even more remarkable.

During his first seven decades he was fortunate to survive several bouts if pneumonia, still a frequent killer in the pre-antibiotic era. His first myocardial infraction (on a visit to the White House) was not treated with the six weeks of bed rest customary at the time - as wartime leader, Churchill had too much to do.

Churchill - the struggle for survival, the biography by his personal physician, Lord Moran - widely regarded as breaching confidentiality - comes under particular scrutiny. Beasley debunks a couple of Moran's conclusions - 'black dog' did not indicate a major depressive illness and while Churchill's alcohol consumption was high, there is no evidence that this impaired his judgement or damaged his health. Beasley's biography - unlike Moran's - has the blessing of the Churchill family.

Written in Wyn Beasley's characteristic clear and engaging style, richly illustrated and laid out in a modern design, this book is a joy to read."

Mr Iain Macintyre, Past Vice-President of RCSEd