This article is in a series from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on Winston Churchill's illnesses
In 1969, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr published an essay Churchill: the Man,1 reprinted in 1980 as the first chapter of his book, Churchill's Black Dog and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind.2 This essay established very firmly in the public imagination that Sir Winston Churchill (Figure 1) suffered throughout his life from recurrent attacks of severe depression, or even manic depression (bipolar disease). Indeed, Churchill's depression is now taken for granted as being almost as much a fact of his biography as that he was born in 1874 and died in 1965.
Storr begins his influential and seminal essay as follows:
The psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to attempt a character study of an individual whom he has never met is engaged upon a project which is full of risk…psychiatrists who attempt biographical studies of great men are apt to allow theory to outrun discretion….1
He then throws caution to the wind. His hypothesis is as follows: Churchill was genetically predisposed to melancholia, a predisposition that was reinforced by an upbringing peculiarly liable to result in depression. His beloved mother was neglectful of him: she was more interested in the social whirl than in her offspring. His greatly admired father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was neglectful too, and in so far as he took any notice at all of the young Winston, it was to point out his deficiencies. He did not think much of his son, believing that he was not clever enough for the law and that the army would have to do for him instead. When Winston offered to be Lord Randolph's private secretary, Lord Randolph turned him down with contumely.
Not long afterwards, Storr's hypothesis continues, Lord Randolph died, and his son spent the rest of his life trying to come up to his deceased father's high standards of achievement in order to earn his love and approbation, a futile and impossible task of course because his father was dead. In the absence of demonstrative parental love, then, Winston Churchill was permanently insecure and tried to earn that love by exceptional activity and accomplishment, which caused him to be hyperactive except when it became obvious that such accomplishment would never make up for the absence of love, whereupon he became depressed. He therefore veered between hyperactivity and his Black Dog. Such is Storr's hypothesis. This is a plausible story, but of course much of the hypothesis is undermined if, in fact, Churchill did not suffer from serious depression.
It is at this point that psychoanalytic insight reveals its inadequacy. For, although I believe that the evidence shows that the conclusions reached in this chapter are justified, we are still at a loss to explain Churchill's remarkable courage. In the course of his life he experienced many reverses: disappointments which might have embittered and defeated even a man who was not afflicted by the ‘Black Dog’. Yet his dogged determination, his resilience, and his courage enabled him, until old age, to conquer his own inner enemy, just as he defeated the foes of the country he loved so well.1
The evidence that Storr adduces in favour of Churchill's supposed depression is repeated over and over again in subsequent studies, so that on reading certain passages one has a powerful sensation of déjà lu. As John Ramsden, the historian, has stated, ‘Storr's view of Churchill strongly influenced all later accounts, sometimes dangerously so in the more inexpert hands.’3