Winston Churchill and the Black Dog

My black dog seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 until 1945. He is seen by many today as the country’s greatest wartime leader: an indefatigable figure, stolid and unshakable.

However, Winston Churchill suffered from clinical depression, possibly manic-depression (bipolarity). He endured paralysing episodes of despair and suicidal thoughts, which rendered him unable to function. He referred to his condition as having his ‘black dog’ on his back.

Winston Churchill didn’t create the metaphor of depression as a ‘black dog’ on the sufferer’s back. He took it from Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century writer and scholar and creator of the first dictionary. Like Churchill, Johnson suffered from depression: or ‘melancholia’, meaning ‘black humour’. His despair pursued him like a hunting hound: he wrote to a friend, “What will you do to keep away the black dog that worries you at home?” Johnson seems to have derived the image from supernatural legends of the Phantom Black Dog that is said to haunt mainland Britain: specifically the Black Dog of Bungay, ‘Black Shuck’, which was described leaping onto a man’s back and shrivelling him up:

“A Strange and Terrible Wonder” – an account of the Black Dog of Bungay

This black dog, or the devil in such a likeness … passing by another man of the congregation in the church, gave him such a gripe on the back, that therewith all he was presently drawn together and shrunk up, as it were a piece of leather scorched in a hot fire.

(Reverend Abraham Fleming, “A Strange and Terrible Wonder”, 1577)

Throughout the war, Churchill was constantly attended by his personal physician, Dr Moran, who prescribed amphetamines to help Churchill ward off his depression. If Churchill had been struck by one of these crushing depressive episodes at any key point in the war – particularly the months between late 1940 and spring 1941, the ‘darkest hour’ – the course of history might have been substantially changed. Cabinet members who favoured making terms with Hitler during this period may have prevailed; there were real fears in 1941 that the continued onslaught of the Blitz might drive the British public to a socialist revolution, similar to the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917. It is quite possible that Britain would have exited the war, leaving Germany and the Soviet Union as the sole combatants. It is unlikely that the USA would have entered the war in support of the Soviets, and so the upshot might have been either Hitler or Stalin holding absolute power over both Russia and mainland Europe. In 1940 and 1941, therefore, a great deal depended on keeping Churchill’s ‘black dog’ at bay.

Churchill may not have created the image of the ‘black dog’ of depression, but he imprinted it indelibly on the public consciousness. Now there are hundreds of books, articles and whole organisations dedicated to combating the ‘black dog’.


Black Dog Depression image by Paul C. Downloaded on license from

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