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When leaders get sick

How the health of national leaders affect politics and the course of history

When leaders get sick

As a political junkie and physician, the role of medical problems of ‘leaders’ and its effect on politics and history has interested me for many years. This all started when I saw the movie ‘The Madness of King George’. In this movie, King George III suffers from a ‘mysterious’ disease that produces periods of mental imbalance. The movie depicts the period of more than ten years after the rebellion of the American colonies, but even so, it made me wonder if the king was also afflicted by his ‘madness’ during that time and if he had been perfectly ‘normal’ could the course of American history might have been different.

The second impetus was reading a book about the history of Tuberculosis (TB). The author when describing ‘modern’ treatment for the disease discusses in some detail the discovery of the antibiotic ‘Streptomycin’. This drug was the first true treatment of TB and became available around 1947. The author says that the physician responsible for the development of the ‘new’ treatment mentions a letter he received from a physician taking care of a ‘leader’ in an ‘eastern’ country who enquired about the availability of this medicine. However, a few months later he received a letter saying that the medicine was no longer needed.

The timeline suggests that the patient in question was Mohammad Ali Jinnah. If Jinnah had survived even for a year, he could have been treated by this new medicine and lived longer. And that would clearly have changed the history of Pakistan. More importantly, Jinnah knowing the inevitability of his demise because of TB that was ‘incurable’ during the late forties made political decisions that he might not have made if he was healthy. So, for us in Pakistan, the fact that Jinnah knew he was dying from an ‘incurable’ disease perhaps made many things happen that might not have otherwise.

Another interesting situation is of Malik Ghulam Muhammad, the third governor general of Pakistan (1951-55). He was already sick when he assumed office and possibly suffered a serious neurological problem (stroke). Many contemporaneous observers mention Ghulam Muhammad’s ‘erratic’ behaviour during official meetings. Ghulam Muhammad was forced out of office because of his poor health.

The decision by Ghulam Muhammad to dismiss the ‘constituent’ assembly lead to the famous Tamizuddin Case (1954-55). This derailed democracy in Pakistan for many decades. Whether this decision had anything to do with Ghulam Muhammad’s unstable mental and physical condition after his stroke is debatable but the question still needs to be asked. Ghulam Muhammad died about a year after he left office.

Without dwelling on ‘ancient history’, even during the last fifty years the ‘health’ of political leaders has had a major impact on modern political politics. Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), the president of the United States, had suffered serious heart problems before he became president. However, at the height of the Vietnam War when confronted by opposition to his policies, he decided not to contest for re-election as president in 1968.

This, of course, brought in Richard Nixon as the next president. LBJ’s decision not to contest is often attributed to his medical problems. That he died only a few years later from a ‘massive’ heart attack proved his fears. If LBJ had run again he would have become president again. And that would have changed the ‘trajectory’ of the Vietnam War and modern history.

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One comment

  • also what happens when leaders get killed. i think about how today where we would be if Benazir was alive

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