Sunday, November 6, 2011

Did Churchill have a heart attack in December 1941?

As a medicine man and a history buff I always wonder whether Winston Churchill had a heart attack, as his doctor, Sir. Charles Wilson, suspected.  While visiting FDR (yes, he stayed inside the While House like a family) in December 1941, about two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.  One night (December 26) he tried to open the bedroom window as it was very hot (air conditioner was not invented yet).  “It was very stiff” and that he had to use “considerable force and I notice all at once that I was short of breath.  I had a dull pain over my heart.  It went down my left arm.  It didn’t last very long, but it has never happened before.  What was it? Is my heart all right?” so Churchill asked Dr. Wilson.

The description certainly fits the diagnosis of a heart attack or at least angina pectoris.  Dr. Wilson kept this as a secret for the next 24 years until after Churchill’s death when he published his diary.

During the course of conversation next morning, Churchill told Dr. Wilson, “Now, Charles, you’re not going to tell me to rest.  I can’t.  I won’t. Nobody else can do this job. I must.  . . . My idea is that strained one of my chest muscles.  I used great force.  I don’t believe it was my heart at all.”  I do believe that nobody can do his job—mobilizing English language to fight Hitler.

Churchill went on to travel to Ottawa, Canada on December 28 as scheduled and returned to the White House on the New Year Eve.  But, he did take a vacation at Florida for five days relaxing on the balmy Florida beach, “Winston basks half-submerged in the water in the winter like a hippopotamus in a swamp” (according to his doctor).  I also read it somewhere that once Churchill fell on the water raising both feet making a large “V” sign.  It is too bad that no digital camera was around to shoot it.

Being a reputed heavy smoker, Churchill must have been very lucky to live beyond 90 years of age if he indeed had a coronary artery event in December 1941.  There was no such thing as “statins” [cholesterol-lowering drugs] and I bet he was not giving the “life-saving” aspirin.

Or Churchill might not smoke as much as he wanted the public to perceive. In Harry Butcher’s My Three Years with Eisenhower (his diary of August 26, 1942, London), one read,

“Asked [Ike] if the PM [Churchill] drank as much as is reputed. Was told he had only a glass of sherry. He smokes a terrifically long and big cigar, but plays with it more than he smokes. After dinner, he lit one of these, and during the evening, it burned about an inch, dying out frequently.  Ike had the impression that the PM rather relishes his reputation as a heavy smoker and drinker, but actually is much more moderate than rumor would indicate.”

Or may be his “moderate” alcohol consumption protected him from the ill-effect of his cigar smoking.
But the evidence of Churchill being a chain smoker also abounds.  His secretary not only endured his constant dictation at wee hours, say 3 AM, but worse yet endured the fume/smell of his constant cigar smoking. 

On January 14, 1942 when Churchill left Washington for London, flying from Norfolk, VA. We read the captain pilot’s account,

“When he [Churchill] entered the control deck the Prime Minister was smoking a cigar.  There is no danger therefrom.  He did, however, ask if it was safe to strike a match when his cigar went out while he was sitting in the controls.  I assured him it was quite safe and that smoking could safely be indulged in anywhere throughout the aircraft. . . .” (see photo.  Churchill was at the controls for about 20 minutes during the flight.

I still cannot tell whether Churchill had a heart attack or not in December 1941.


  1. Very interesting article! Great job citing historical record. I've been watching "Into the Storm", an HBO movie covering Churchill from 1940-45. They portrayed the heart event exactly as you described.
    Thank you!
    -Catherine Stewart

  2. Regards to Health and fitness. One of the best way to treat heart problem is alternative to bypass surgery.