Sunday 11th June, 2006

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Questions over Eric Williams’ mental health

Prof Selwyn Ryan has opened a debate about whether or not Dr Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister, was mentally stable.

In his paper presented at the Caribbean Studies Association conference in Port-of-Spain, two weeks ago, he said:

“Medical practitioners and insiders consulted during my study disagree sharply about the extent and nature of Williams’ affliction.

“One of his doctors advised the author that the Prime Minister was not a depressive, but that he himself had formed a judgment that he became paranoid in later life.

“Almost all the others consulted were of the view that he was a depressive.

“Some claimed that Williams’ bipolar problem was mild, but was aggravated by the problems that he had to face, and the corrupt behaviour of some of the men who formed part of his inner circle.

Others strongly disagreed with this diagnosis, and saw it as part of a “lying conspiracy to protect a tribal icon and a national brand name.”

Now that the subject of Williams’ mental health is being debated, one must wonder about what else there is to find out about a man who led this country for 25 years.

In a letter to the Editor of the Sunday Express for June 4, Prof Courtenay Bartholomew challenges Ryan’s view about whether Williams was treated by a psychiatrist. Bartholomew also goes on to say:

“Now, it was a sample of blood taken after his death that revealed for the first time that he had obviously been a late onset diabetic without reporting certain tell-tale symptoms to anyone.”

This view would clearly confirm how intensely private Williams was about himself. With his doctors making a post-mortem discovery that he was a diabetic would raise all kinds of questions.

However, the most startling aspect of Bartholomew’s letter was the final paragraph, which read:

“Blood taken after he died revealed that his blood sugar was 1,600mg. The normal blood sugar is up to 200 mg/dl! It was, by far, the highest level ever seen by Ince and myself.

“He died in a diabetic coma, and his high blood sugar over his last two years or so would also have slowly and progressively altered his mental function.”

The confirmation that Williams died in a diabetic coma is provided by Bartholomew, but his statement that Williams’ “mental function” would have been altered over his last two years would seem to confirm a part of Ryan’s thesis that Williams’ mental health was suspect.

The debate would really be about whether there was a problem earlier in his life, or whether it would be confined to the years immediately preceding his death.

The other part of this debate between Ryan and Bartholomew is the question of whether Williams knew he was a diabetic or not. Bartholomew clearly states that Williams did not report the tell-tale symptoms of his diabetes to anyone, and that “he had inadvertently and severely aggravated his condition (as was discovered later) by drinking glucose drinks, sweetened daiquiris, and eating ice cream and cake in large quantities…,” while Ryan argues that Williams was fully aware of his diabetic condition and refused to medicate himself, thereby suggesting that Williams committed suicide.

Was his diabetic coma caused through inadvertent or deliberate action?

Ryan further argues that Williams may have been bipolar, but diminishes the harshness of such an opinion by saying that “bipolarity is not a character flaw, and that many of the great men and women of history have been afflicted with the disorder.”

In conceding that Williams had a mental disorder, Ryan walks a tight line when he suggests that “many have argued that there is a link between charismatic leadership and mental illness, and that the two are dialectically related.”

It is interesting that this debate has emerged during the 50th anniversary year of the formation of the PNM by Eric Williams.

It challenges some of the mythical qualities that have been ascribed to Eric Williams and, indeed, reduces him to the status of a mere mortal.

There are thousands who ascribed superhuman qualities to Williams as a strategist, thinker, orator and leader. Does this debate smash the glass case surrounding those qualities?

The PNM has steered clear of the debate, while Ryan is about to publish a book on the subject.

His passing comment about “the corrupt behaviour of some of the men who formed part of his inner circle” has not drawn any response, but it is significant.

One wonders whether Ryan is making a general comment or is hinting at something more substantial.

Ryan provides his audience with a view that suggests Williams was mentally ill almost from the time that he captured power.

His wide-ranging research embraces the early period of PNM rule through his references to the views of Dr Winston Mahabir, who served in the first PNM Cabinet, and Sir Solomon Hochoy, who was Colonial Secretary, then Governor and then Governor-General.

He continues through the years of PNM rule by offering opinions from Sir Ellis Clarke and ANR Robinson that suggest a man whose moods were not stable.

Indeed, the opinions of Norman Manley and a former British High Commissioner to T&T, Norman Costar, were included in his paper to provide some consistency with the other views expressed.

This tremendous fascination with Eric Williams continues to this day, primarily because there was so much mystique that surrounded him, even in death.

Ryan is, indeed, “mortalising” Eric Williams. However, he may have started a firestorm over the issue of Williams being mentally ill.

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