Mr. Chartwell, a book by Rebecca Hunt, was listed on the prestigious Top 100 books by the Globe and Mail for 2011. I picked it for my holiday reading list. Mr. Chartwell is actually the Black Dog, which is how Sir Winston Churchill referred to his depression. In Hunt’s novel, Churchill’s Black Dog is also just that: a big oaf of a black dog. No one else can see him, but he sits on Sir Winston’s legs and chest and refuses to leave.
The novel got me thinking about Churchill’s hearing loss. Churchill was a powerful prime minister; a journalist; a soldier in India, Egypt, and Sudan; a prisoner of war; a Member of Parliament for 60 years; an aviator; and a colonel in WWI. He was also a man who suffered from depression and hearing loss.
He was more secretive about his hearing loss than he was about his depression.
Churchill made no mention of hearing loss in his own published works, nor is it discussed by his early biographers, except as an adjunct to his age.
The first detailed mention of his hearing loss is found in the 1966 biography, “Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran”, written by Churchill’s personal physician, Sir Charles Wilson (Lord Moran).
Lord Moran told an interesting story about the Potsdam Conference of 1945. During this conference, President Truman, Stalin, and Churchill discussed the occupation of post-war Germany, and issued an ultimatum to Japan. Churchill had not read the briefs. Stalin was better prepared and would put sharp questions to Churchill, who would turn to his team and say, “What is the answer to that?” One of his team said, “We had to hiss the answers which he could not hear, and the whole thing became a shambles as a result.”
In 1950, Churchill was diagnosed with a high frequency hearing loss. Churchill refused to wear hearing aids.
In 1955, Lord Moran noted that “It does not seem a long time since Winston did all the talking at every meal; now he sits all huddled up in silence; he can no longer hear what is being said, he is outside the round of conversation and not a part of it. Though, at times, it is true, when there is a burst of laughter, someone will explain to him what it is all about.”
In 1962, Churchill had a visit from Dr. Robert Davidson, President emeritus of Westminster College, and his colleague.
Dr. Davidson said, “Mr. Churchill was in bed during the interview; he was recovering from a fall. As I entered the room, his aide told me to sit at the head of the bed on Churchill’s right. There was a microphone under the bedclothes at that side of the bed. My colleague sat on the other side.”
“I found Mr. Churchill very lucid and we conversed on a variety of topics during the visit. However, my colleague commented after we left, ‘The old boy is completely senile I suspect. He didn’t respond to anything I said.’ Of course, this was because he was seated out of the range of the microphone. Mr. Churchill’s age and hearing impairment had most certainly not affected his mind!”
This blog article contains material originally found in “Churchill’s Loss” by D. Bakker in Hearing Health, April/May 1995.