Courtesy Reuters

Political Disorders

Does Executive Authority Corrupt the Mind?

In This Review

In Sickness and in Power: Illnesses in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years
By David Owen
Praeger, 2008
448 pp. $44.95

David Owen has been in the thick of British politics almost since he qualified as a physician in 1962. After just four years of practicing medicine and conducting research on brain chemistry, he was elected as the Labour member of Parliament for his home constituency, Plymouth Sutton, in the southwestern corner of England. For a time, Lord Owen attempted to attend to both parliamentary business and his own research, but in 1968 he left medicine, never to return. He has since served as minister of health, foreign secretary, and leader of the Social Democratic Party. He is currently chancellor of the University of Liverpool and a member of the House of Lords.

In the six years that he practiced medicine, Owen came into close contact with doctors treating prominent politicians and observed firsthand the toll that political life takes on public figures. Thus began his interest in health and power, which culminated in The Hubris Syndrome. This book, published in 2007, argues that being in power brings about changes in one's mental state and leads to hubristic behavior, and that hubris is not merely a personality characteristic but a pathological state. Mental illness, Owen notes, "may need to be redefined to include a hubris syndrome." His latest book, In Sickness and in Power, examines how both specific diseases and intoxication with power have shaped major decisions by world leaders in the twentieth century.


In Sickness and in Power delves into the cases of four politicians whose judgment was impaired by disease in times of crisis: British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who suffered from biliary tract disease during the 1956 Suez crisis; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was plagued by adrenal insufficiency during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had leukemia during the final years of his rule; and French President François Mitterand, who was battling prostate cancer from 1981 to 1995, during the Falklands War, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the

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