You Don't Have to Be Mad to Work Here. There Can Be No Better Guide through the Medical Records of Our Leaders Than David Owen, Whose Life Has Revolved around Medicine and Politics. Peter Elson Reports
Byline: Peter Elson
THERE is a popular belief that anyone barmy enough to want to be prime minister or president should be automatically excluded from the job. As if to prove this piece of folk wisdom, David Owen in a new book offers evidence that, in some cases, past heads of state ruled with ailments that would disqualify them from serving in the Army catering corps.
As a result, In Sickness and In Power, which has taken Lord Owen, Chancellor of Liverpool University, six years to research and write, is an absolutely gripping read.
Although it appeals to humankind's desire for gossip, the book goes far beyond mere speculation as it sticks to the facts and is therefore as near to source as most of us will ever get.
"Every single fact is properly referenced," confirms Lord Owen, who deservedly glows with pride at what is a very impressive accomplishment.
The book presents case studies of around 30 heads of state from the earliest 20th century to the present, plus analysis and the author's own particular offering of what happens when things go wrong, a condition he calls "hubris syndrome".
Never has a book lying on the corner of my desk created so much interest, as colleagues drifting by would irresistibly start dipping into it.
I'd look up they'd still be silently standing by me 15 minutes later, totally absorbed.
Or as one colleague put it, glancing down the list - which includes Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Mugabe, Thatcher, Bush and Blair - "Oh my God! They're all here."
Among many astonishing cases, the most jaw-dropping is that of President John Kennedy, whose medical history and lifestyle make you wonder how he ever functioned in the most basic way, never mind as leader of a superpower.
But as Lord Owen says: "It's the nature of the beast". These are abnormal people with incredible ambition, whose driven personalities power them through incredible medical setbacks.
It probably explains why so many were depressive personalities.
Lord Owen says it was while working as a junior doctor at St Thomas Hospital, London, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, that his interest grew in the relationship between politicians and doctors.
"It has fascinated me for all of my adult life. In particular, I've been interested in the effect on the course of history of illness in heads of government.
"It raises many issues, including the impact on decision making, the dangers inherent in keeping illness secret, the difficulties of getting rid of ill leaders, not only in democracies but also in dictatorships.
"There is also the effect on the behaviour of doctors. Should they be loyal just to their patients, as in any normal doctor-patient relationship, or do they have an obligation to do what's best for their country?"
With many generations of his family involved in both medicine and politics (mainly at a local level), he finds it perfectly normal to consider both professions in tandem.
Perhaps this is particularly fitting as he specialised in neurology and some psychiatry, practising medicine for six years.
Had politics not enveloped him, Lord Owen reckons he would have tried to become a professor of neuropsychiatry.
Liverpool University's vice chancellor, Prof Sir Drummond Bone, says that "David Owen has a contacts' book to die for" and he has certainly used it to devastating effect in this book.
He has had access to hitherto previously unquoted or deeply guarded medical records, including those of the Shah of Persia and still-closed documents about Anthony Eden's health during the Suez Crisis, in 1956.
"The consultants for whom I worked at St Thomas' Hospital treated a number of well-known politicians and I saw the stresses of political life within the confidential doctor - patient context," he says. …