The publication of my Churchill and Attlee has not stopped me reading about Churchill. The latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has just published two papers on the strokes Churchill suffered.
The paper by John Scadding and Allister Vale have had access to papers of Dr Russell Brain, one of the great neurologists of the day. Churchill complained of feeling peculiar in August 1949 when he was holidaying at Cap d’Ail on the Riviera. As I have argued Churchill could be very playful. He was a good swimmer and now at the age of 74 he turned somersaults in the sea to impress the actor Merle Oberon. In the evening, however, he felt peculiar. When he woke on August 24, he still felt odd. Churchill’s personal physician Charles Moran was summoned from London. He turned up with golf clubs so Churchill would not suspect any one suspected something was seriously wrong.
Moran was worried and when Churchill got back to London, he called Russell Brain – could any neurologist ask for a better name? - to ask him to examine the Leader of the Opposition as Churchill then was. When Brain did so, Churchill handed his half smoked cigar to his valet and then gave an account of what had happened at Cap d’Ail and of the fact that he felt he had lumps in his thigh and had a tight feeling in his right shoulder and on the right side of his back.
Brain found Churchill’s speech was normal. Churchill then made Brain sit on the bed while he pressed on Brain’s back. “It was like the hug of a bear,” Brain noted. He explained to Churchill that he had had a temporary impairment of the circulation through part of his brain. Churchill then insisted on showing Brain that there was nothing wrong with the way he walked. He did a kind of goose step and then insisted Brain and Moran had a sherry. Brain said that the fact the election was delayed for four months would give Churchill time to get all his old strength back. But in four months, Churchill replied, he would be four months older.
The details of Brain’s assessment have never been published before. They offer a telling insight into Churchill’s spirit as he prepared to fight Attlee, his rival but also by now an old comrade in arms, for Downing Street.
The Journal promises more new material on Churchill’s medical condition in its next issues. The French poet Paul Valery said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. You could say the same thing about a biography of Churchill.