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Did Winston Churchill’s Health Problems Come from Smoking?

Having been overweight for most of his later years in life and often photographed with a cigar in his mouth, it’s no secret that Winston Churchill didn’t live the healthiest lifestyle he could. Though he died from a major stroke in 1965 at the age of 90, Churchill was given a large state funeral in history – the only non-member of the royal family to receive one since 1898 – in honor of his accomplishments and contributions to the United Kingdom throughout World War II and onwards.

It’s highly likely that Churchill’s health problems came from his smoking habits and other unhealthy habits. But how unhealthy was Churchill throughout his life?

 

Early Life

Because he was born into the elite levels of British aristocracy, it can be assumed that Churchill was born a healthy young boy with no major health complications. While his family was known for living long lives, Churchill’s father died when he was still a student, which led Churchill to believe that he would die young. He grew up to be a boy with poor health as he transferred schools multiple times due to his frailty.

Churchill was moved from St. George’s School, a boarding school in East Berkshire, to Brunswick School, another boarding school in East Sussex in 1884. According to British Studies Professor Antoine Capet, it was likely that Churchill’s health became frail at an early age due to the physical abuse he received from St. George’s School.

In 1886, Churchill was treated on-campus for pneumonia of the right lung by the Churchill family’s doctor, Robson Roose. Although German doctors discovered that pneumonia was caused by bacteria in the airways around this time, this was the late 19th century, way before penicillin was discovered. Before such medicines existed, it was either the patient got better on their own or they deteriorated and died. Luckily, Churchill was able to survive his bout with pneumonia.

During his young adult years, Churchill was said to be very active and restless. He was played polo and was rarely ever sedentary in his work in the military. Old portraits of Churchill proved that as late as 1914, at the age of 39, he was still of a regular body size, though his round face mixed complemented with high collars made him look larger than he was.

 

Churchill’s Cigar Smoking Habits

Churchill most likely began his hobby of smoking Cuban cigars after 1895, when he was visiting Cuba as a second lieutenant. During that time, it was highly likely that he explored a lot of what Cuban culture had to offer, including its leading export product, cigars. Since then, he only ever smoked two brands of Cuban cigars: Romeo y Julieta, and La Aroma de Cuba.

Photo credit from Sandra M. Lopes

These were not cheap cigars. Despite his ancestry, Churchill was not a rich man and went into debt due to his lavish lifestyle. He was lucky, however, to have wealthy friends who would gift him with cigars, though was not above buying his own even when he was in debt.

In his later years, Churchill would often be seen with a cigar in his mouth. Capet believes that his smoking could be the reason why Churchill would contract pneumonia many times in his life. As a result of his smoking habits, Churchill would need to wear an oxygen mask even when he slept. He was given a pressure chamber, but was never used. He had even asked that a special oxygen mask be made for him so that he could still smoke cigars while wearing his oxygen mask.

 

Churchill’s Alcohol Intake

Aside from cigars, Churchill was known to frequently drink alcohol. He had a habit of adding whisky to his water in developing countries like India and South Africa, believing that it would prevent waterborne diseases. He would drink alcohol nearly every day for long periods of time – before, during, and after mealtimes.

Photo credit from Legion Magazine

However, Churchill was not an alcoholic as he was able to control his urges and prevent himself from drinking too much that it would affect his ability to do his job in the government. One myth claims that Churchill made a bet with a man that he could avoid drinking hard liquor for a year; Churchill supposedly won this bet.

 

World War II

It was believed that Churchill suffered a heart attack during the 1941 Christmas Part in the White House. However, this was disproved, according to Capet, and was just a case of sluggish circulation. Upon their return to England, Churchill was seen by a cardiologist who declared that Churchill did not suffer a heart attack based on the lack of ECG evidence during his check-up. However, Churchill was never informed of this diagnosis.

In 1943, Churchill contracted pneumonia twice. During this time, Churchill was already Prime Minister and known to be a smoker. The first occasion was in London where he was diagnosed with a severe case of pneumonia that required two weeks of rest. The second was while travelling thousands of miles to meet with national leaders, Churchill developed pneumonia once more while travelling in Tunisia. This started from a cold from Cairo and Tehran. Within 12 hours of contracting pneumonia, Churchill was taken to an American hospital. Churchill was also given a fortnight to rest and resumed his duties 16 days later. He had a less severe case of pneumonia eight months later in Morocco.

Though Churchill was very busy during the war, his duties were more sedentary than his original tasks, and he began to live less actively. However, by the time he was 65, Churchill was energized by the war, though his health was getting frailer due to several bouts of pneumonia as well as his growing unhealthy habits.

 

Later Years

As Churchill grew older, he began to gain weight and practice smoking cigars and drinking alcohol outside of formal occasions.This eventually took a toll on his health as he suffered multiple strokes for the rest of his later years.

 

Churchill’s Strokes

His first stroke happened on 1949 during a vacation in Southern France. The British monarch at the time, George VI, considered inviting Churchill to retire, but there is no evidence whether he brought it up to Churchill before his death in 1952.

Churchill suffered his first major stroke in 1953 after having dinner at 10 Downing Street. This left him partially paralyzed on his lower side, but he was able to hold a Cabinet meeting without anyone realizing there was something physically wrong with him. Though doctors believed he would die within the week, Churchill survived this episode. This incident marked the decline of Churchill’s health, who was always exhausted at work. He was still Prime Minister, and had his successor, Anthony Eden, been fit to take over, Churchill might have been forced to retire.

By 1955, Churchill recognized that he was not as physically and mentally capable as he was at his peak and decided to retire. A year later, he suffered another mild stroke and suffered somnambulism (also known as sleepwalking).

 

Churchill’s Death

Churchill suffered two more strokes in the 1960s. On 1965, Churchill suffered a major stroke that left him on his deathbed. He died nine days later in his home. It was believed that prior to his death, Churchill was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, though it is more likely his mental state had deteriorated after suffering ten strokes throughout his life as well as increasing deafness since 1949.

Photo credit from The Telegraph

Despite his accomplishments in life, Churchill practiced many unhealthy habits which attributed to his health’s decline. While that doesn’t cancel out what he has accomplished in his lifetime, it goes to show that no matter how successful one’s life may be, no one is exempt to the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.

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