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A Doctor’s Tale: Lord Moran and Churchill’s Medical History
Note to readers. Dr. Mather was updating his 2005 essay, “Lord Moran’s Diary” when he was unexpectedly taken from us on December 5th. We publish this in his memory. For a remembrance of John by his friends, please click here.
Sir Martin Gilbert writes…
A major source, for me as for all historians, was the voluminous diary kept by Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran. Throughout the period of my researches the diary was closed to historians. Then, after the completion of an authorized life of Moran, it was brought to a leading medical library. I asked for the diary entry for a single date (I wanted to reproduce the published version in facsimile in The Churchill Documents, vol. 15, Never Surrender, May 1940-December 1940.)
To my dismay, not merely for myself but for historical truth, I was told by the custodian of the papers that there was no entry for that day at all, even though an entry under that exact date appears in the published book. Even the entries that did exist, I was told, were “not a diary in the accepted sense of the word.” The mind boggles at how much misinformation may have crept into the history books, mine included, by such routes. As in the marketplace for fruit and vegetables, so for diaries, caveat emptor, let the purchaser beware. —Sir Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (1995), 233.
Dr. Charles McMoran Wilson
Lord Moran (pronounced “MORE-en”) was Churchill’s primary physician from 1940 until his patient’s death in 1965.1 In 1966 he published his memoirs in the UK and USA.2 The response was immediate and highly critical. Churchill’s family and his immediate political entourage were outraged. Moran’s medical colleagues considered the revealing of information on his illustrious patient a breach of medical ethics.3
Several of Churchill’s confidants during the Second World War and his postwar premiership were incensed by Moran’s book. They considered it “an inexcusable breach of confidence.”4 Six of them challenged Moran on several counts, including his assessments of Churchill’s performance, political acumen and personal relationships. They especially deprecated the indefatigable General Hastings “Pug” Ismay.
Churchill’s “inner circle” felt their response was necessary because Moran did not confine himself to “technical medical details.” The doctor, they said, “has also given his assessment of Churchill’s qualities as a statesman and leader…. We cannot accept this assessment as it stands. We believe that in some respects it is incorrect and in others incomplete and on both accounts misleading.”5
The second Lord Moran wished to rebut the criticisms leveled at his father. In 2002 he published a revised volume covering May 1940 to July 1945—first half of the original text. It contained thirty-one additions, plus an introduction explaining his father’s work.6 He referred to the publishing controversy and went on to explain what sort of diary his father kept.7 His father’s work should be judged, he wrote, by the reliability of the notes and notebooks he used to write his books.8
The postwar years revised
The second part of Lord Moran’s original work, covering 1945-60, was reissued in 2006.9 It contained thirty-three additions and one new medical event. All but one page of the last two chapters now appeared as an Epilogue. The introduction, not by Moran’s son, provides insight into the resources for his father’s diary: “These three strands—the absolutely contemporary, the near-contemporary and the essay material—were mingled in the same notebooks.”10 The introduction calls the diary “an invaluable source for anyone interested in understanding the doctor, as well as his patient.”11
It must now be concluded that Lord Moran did not produce a diary in the generally accepted use and meaning of the word, as there are many breaks and gaps in the chronology. It is not a day-by-day record, unlike other diaries kept by other Churchill associates.12
What can be said now about the accuracy, veracity and comprehensiveness of Moran’s “diary”? Does it provide useful and clear insights into historical events? Is it a full record of the medical care received by his patient? What inferences might be drawn about Moran as historian, physician and person?
Less a diary than a retrospective
Lord Moran often refers to keeping a diary and he appears in places to consult earlier diary references.13 His text is full of quotations, events and conversations, which he appears not to have verified with the participants. The result was many ruffled feathers.14 Nevertheless he wrote: “I wished to be sure that I had reported faithfully those who have talked to me about [Churchill]. I trust that in checking those conversations I have forgotten no one.”15
Moran’s text appears to involve considerable retrospective editing. Obvious errors crept in, such as confusion about dates and who was the more ill at Yalta, Churchill or Roosevelt. His son attributes these errors to his father’s age and exhaustion.16
Lord Brain, Churchill’s neurologist, was particularly disturbed by Moran quoting him without his knowledge and approval. Brain was concerned that his clinical practice might be adversely affected. Eventually the dispute was settled. His son, Dr. Michael Brain, later commented that Moran’s quoting him “showed a gratuitous insensitivity to the feelings of a loyal and very supportive colleague.”17
Sir Thomas Dunhill, Churchill’s surgeon, was also damned with faint praise: “Dunhill rather funks an operation on a man of his age and eminence. He is a simple soul, though a fine craftsman.”18 These recorded remarks seem consistent with Moran’s personality. Even when he admired someone he had a knack of saying “something negative before giving praise.”19 Sir John Colville declared, “Though Moran is vain, egotistical and exceedingly indiscreet, his judgment of people is often shrewd, though by no means always right.”20
An incomplete record
There are several events at which Moran was absent and could not cover. The 1941 Atlantic Charter conference, the 1940 Battle of Britain speech, and the 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech are examples. Later on, Moran was asked to, or sought to, accompany Churchill on his travels. He became aggravated when his requests to come along were denied, such as the 1959 trip to see President Eisenhower.21 When Moran did accompany Churchill he was usually not present at meetings involving strategy or statecraft. He was there to provide medical attention, as after 1955, when Churchill was holidaying in the South of France. Nevertheless his book contains comments on affairs of state, which have set historians questioning the accuracy of his record. Historians have also begun unraveling his conflicting accounts of the timing and nature of events.22
John Colville acerbically commented: “Moran was seldom, if ever, present when history was made; but he was quite often invited to dinner afterwards.”23 Moran may have given more credence to what he heard from Churchill than was warranted. We know Churchill liked to test ideas by tossing them around with his companions.24 Moran may have vested these half-formed thoughts with more emphasis than they deserved.
Relying on Moran’s book for accurate dates is risky. His papers reside at the Wellcome Institute Library, University College, London, but almost all the files are unavailable to researchers. Sir Martin Gilbert’s experience, quoted above, was typical.25
Anyone familiar with the medical occurrences in Churchill’s life during 1940-65 will note many omissions. The archivist for the Moran Papers offers an explanation: “This material includes some sensitive medical information and is therefore closed for a period.”26 Churchill’s broken right femur in June 1962, is not recorded, nor are other medical events of his last five years. At this point Moran comments that “the short entries in my diary add little to the record. I have thought it proper to omit the painful details…because they are no longer of historical significance…”27
Sir John Parkinson saw Churchill in consultation about a heart ailment on 24 August 1953. He was “shocked” by the way WSC had aged since he saw him four years before. Moran has no diary entry for Parkinson in 1949, or December 1941, when Parkinson indicated he saw Churchill after a supposed heart attack.28
Another inaccurate date concerns Lord Brain, who kept scrupulous notes on his patients. Moran claimed Brain had first seen Churchill on 25 May 1950, but Brain records that date as 5 October 1949. Lord Brain recounts eight subsequent visits, which Moran omits. Churchill’s engagement cards at the Churchill Archives Centre confirm all of Lord Brain’s visits, the first as he recorded, 5 October 1949.29
“Among the greatest services he rendered”
Moran had a modest private practice when he became Churchill’s primary physician, but soon WSC was his only patient. Thereafter, Moran embraced medical politics, as President of the Royal College of Physicians and hospital consultants’ representative to the National Health Service. To know and to summon the best physicians and surgeons to Churchill’s side was one of his strengths, although securing the thyroid specialist Sir Thomas Dunhill for Churchill’s hernia repair in 1947 was a marginal decision.30
Moran’s biographer, Richard Lovell, spent much time organizing materials in order to write a cogent and balanced account. Other medical information has now arrived, thanks to Allister Vale’s and John Scadding’s new book, Churchill’s Illnesses 1886-1965. One issue had previously surfaced: the full extent of Moran’s prescription of various drugs. Some were to help Churchill sleep, but more controversial stimulants were prescribed to keep him in top form. Churchill appears to have received a supply of these several drugs, and was able to self-medicate.31
Moran selectively records medical data, frequently pulse rate but not blood pressure. Lord Brain recorded one of 160/90 in his initial examination.32 Churchill often took his own temperature, and called for Moran when it was elevated sometimes a harbinger of pneumonia. Once, alarmed at a temperature of 66 degrees, Churchill called for his doctor, but he’d misread the thermometer—it was 96!33 The doctor seems to accept that his patient would not curb his consumption of alcohol and cigars, however limited in later years, or his prodigious appetite for fine food.
The overall impression Moran has left with others is that, “His skill in diagnosis and the unhesitating speed with which he found the right men at the right time were the greatest services he rendered.”34
Severe critique or honest assessment?
Moran’s book was not the first memoir to cast Churchill in a less than noble light. Field Marshal Alanbrooke published his own day-by-day dairy nine years earlier.35 Ironically, Moran said Alanbrooke’s work “was taken by Winston’s friends…as an affront to his fame,” and also caught Alanbrooke’s friends by surprise.36
Moran’s diary was different. Besides physical ailments such as eye problems, pneumonias and strokes, he included detailed information on Churchill’s moods and mental state. There is a first reference to Churchill’s depressive tendencies, still a controversial topic.37 The excruciating details on Churchill’s mood swings, decay and decrepitude were things his family could recognize, albeit upsetting.
Moran also intimates that he could help Churchill “open his heart, and feel better for his candour.” Churchill had a genuine reliance on and affection for Moran. “It is wonderful that you have kept me going for so long,” he once remarked.38 Revealing such intimacies upset the family, who sensed that Moran inappropriately traded on his “special relationship.” It might also have exposed Churchill to the possibility that he was human after all, and possibly not so worthy of admiration and honor. Happily, there is no indication that it did.
A big plus for medical historians
Notwithstanding the discrepancies in the diary, and with the benefit of hindsight, we may conclude that Moran was the first physician significantly to reveal important information about a world figure that no one else would have been able to record. With his book under attack, Moran told The Times: “It is not possible to follow the last twenty-five years of Sir Winston’s life without a knowledge of his medical background…. It was exhaustion of mind and body that accounted for much that is otherwise inexplicable. Only a doctor can give the facts accurately.”39
Moran’s revelation of Churchill’s physical and mental health was a first, but subsequent biographers unsqueamishly covered similar ground.40 This is a big plus for medical historians. On Moran as a diarist, one scholar wrote: “The topical question of whether a patient’s confidence has been outraged by his physician’s account of him both in his strength and in his weakness will no longer agitate the reader.”41 And that is true. Today, the ethical propriety of revealing intimate medical details about notable persons seems to be of much less concern.
As for the doctor himself, he mobilized his medical colleagues and provided a level of care consistent with contemporary practice. His reliance on certain drugs to bolster Churchill’s spirits in later years might be questionable, but his patient evinced a strong, rarely ambivalent, and high regard for his services.
Whether Churchill would have approved of Moran setting forth the record of his life in such a manner is another question. Yet he might well echo his daughter Lady Soames: “Lord Moran understood Winston 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 also fully aware of the implications with regard to the office he held, of his condition at any time.”42
1Lord Moran’s long life (1882-1977) is detailed in Richard Lovell, Churchill’s Doctor: A Biography of Lord Moran (New York: Parthenon, 1993).
2Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (London: Constable 1966); Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966). Hereinafter, Diaries, with page references from the Houghton Mifflin edition. In London the Sunday Times serialized the work prior to publication, making for timely reaction.
3Much could be written about the ensuing uproar. The New York Times said there was “something morbid about publishing so clinical a record of a great man; possibly something ‘unethical,’ as Americans put it.” See Ilza Veith, “On Privileged Communication: A Comparative Study of Several Medical Cases,” The Western Journal of Medicine 138:3, March 1983, 437-40. See also the editorial, “A Question of Confidence,” The Lancet, vol. I, 23 April 1966, 920.
4Sir Leslie Rowan in John Wheeler-Bennett, ed., Action This Day: Working with Churchill, (London: Macmillan, 1968), 249.
5Lord Normanbrook in Action This Day, 10, 31.
6Lord Moran, Churchill at War 1940-45 (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002). An unidentified addition appears in the text (25) where Consuelo Balsan, former Duchess of Marlborough, is quoted: “Winston looks very well. This is due to Sir Charles. He is President of the Royal College of Physicians but has given up everything to do this.” Moran adds, “I think the P.M. was rather surprised at this pronouncement. It had never been put like this before.”
7Ibid., introduction, xxii-xxiii. The second Lord Moran quotes his father’s biographer’s preface, stating that his father did not keep “a full diary with entries for each day, from which passages were extracted to go into the book.”
8Churchill encouraged Moran to publish his first book, The Anatomy of Courage (London: Constable, 1945), but refused to write a preface, saying it might hurt military recruitment. Lovell, Churchill’s Doctor, 213.
9Lord Moran, Churchill: The Postwar Years 1945-60. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. The reason for the omission of Chapters 71 and 72 from the original text is unclear, although it was there that the phrase “mounting decrepitude” originally appeared.
10Ibid., xvi. The conclusion is that “the manuscripts amount not to a ‘diary’…but rather the notes for the book on Churchill Moran always intended to write, in a near-constant state of flux and revision.”
12Review of two sources will make the point: John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years (London: Bloomsbury, 1991; John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985).
13Moran, Diaries, 821: “My diary for those years (since summer of 1949), five of them during his retirement, is in part a sad record of the advancing signs of decay, a catalogue of lamentations over faculties that had gone.”
14Many of the “Inner Circle” noted their dismay at the quotations attributed to them, and modified them or placed them in a broader context, to provide a more succinct and balanced picture.
15Moran, Diaries, acknowledgements. Lord Moran informed Wendy Reves that Lady Churchill had “edited out” many passages on Churchill’s visits to the Reves chateau, La Pausa. In fact, Lady Churchill did not see the text prior to publication. (Lady Soames to Richard Langworth, 2005.)
16Moran, Churchill at War (2002), introduction, xxvi. Despite the “discrepancies,” his son states, “in the main his account was a truthful and accurate one,” supporting this assertion with a series of quotations from supportive commentators.
17W. Russell Brain, “Encounters with Winston Churchill,” Medical History, vol. 44, 2000, 3-20.
18Moran, Diaries, 342.
19Richard Lovell, “Choosing People: An Aspect of the Life of Lord Moran (1882-1977),” Medical History, vol. 36, 1992, 442-54. Lovell states that Lord Moran’s nickname was “Corkscrew Charlie,” which, depending on friend or foe, meant he was either shrewd and clever or devious and manipulative.
20Colville, Fringes of Power, 515. Observation in his diary for 14 September 1944.
21Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset (London: Cassell, 1995), 260. Churchill is quoted as saying, “No I don’t want that bloody old man,” although the author immediately adds: “Actually he [WSC] was rather fond of Moran.”
22John Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend since 1945 (London: HarperCollins, 2002). David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (New York: Random House, 2005).
23John Colville, in Action This Day, 110.
24Anthony Seldon, Churchill’s Indian Summer: The Conservative Government 1951-1955 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981), 32.
25Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 233.
26P.A. Baker, “Illustrations from the Wellcome Institute Library: The Moran Papers,” Medical History, vol. 36, 1992, 455-59.
29Brain, “Encounters,” 7-8, footnotes 17-18.
30Prior to performing the hernia repair, the 71-year-old Dunhill practiced the operation for a week on National Health Service patients at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. See Richard Gordon, An Alarming History of Famous and Difficult Patients (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
31Richard Lovell, “Letters: Lord Moran’s prescriptions for Churchill.” British Medical Journal, vol. 310, 1999, 1537-38. Moran, Diaries, 508, 546, 564, 610, 619, 628, 648, 658.
32Brain, “Encounters,” 9.
33Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset, 142.
34John Colville, Winston Churchill and his Inner Circle (New York: Wyndham Books, 1981), 245
35Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (New York: Doubleday, 1957); Triumph in the West 1943-1946 (New York: Doubleday, 1959). More scathing is Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, Alanbrooke: War Diaries 1939-1945 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998). See also Andrew Roberts, “Not For Publication?” Finest Hour 111, Summer 2001; and Christophe Harmon, “Alanbrooke and Churchill,” Finest Hour 112, Autumn 2001.
36Moran Diaries, 758-59.
37Ibid., 179, 195, 794, 804.
38Ibid., 690, 707.
39Lord Moran, letter to the editor of The Times, London, 25 April 1966.
40Several books have been published since 1966 on medical biography (pathography). See Bert E. Park, Ailing, Aging and Addicted: Studies of Compromised Leadership (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993); Clarence G. Lasby, Eisenhower’s Heart Attack (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997); Robert H. Ferrell, The Dying President: Roosevelt (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998): Allister Vale & John Scadding, Churchill’s Illnesses 1886-1965 (Barnsley, Yorks. & Havertown, Penna., Frontline, 2020.
41Douglas Hubble, “Lord Moran and James Boswell: The Two Diarists Compared and Contrasted,” Medical History, vol. 13, 1969, 1-9.
42Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill, revised and updated edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 470.