Winston Churchill? Simon Singh? Stanley Baldwin? The Reader’s Digest? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Simon Singh is a fine author who writes knowledgeably about mathematical and scientific topics. His book “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe” credited the following words to the statesman Winston Churchill [WCSS]:
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.
This quotation was used by Singh during a discussion about serendipity and the development of antibiotics. When Alexander Fleming examined some bacterial cultures that had been contaminated with mold he saw an avenue toward the epoch-making discovery of penicillin Other scientists probably threw away similar contaminated cultures in exasperation.
I think it is a marvelous saying, but I have not yet located a solid citation. Could you determine if Churchill made this remark?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence located by QI for a similar quote appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine in 1942, and the words were ascribed to Winston Churchill. Interestingly, the saying was about an individual unnamed man and not about men in general or people in general [WCR1]:
Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened. (Winston Churchill)
An important reference work “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit” was published by Kay Halle in 1966. Halle knew the leader well, and she interviewed him and many of his friends while creating the compendium. Halle stated that the quote was aimed at Churchill’s political adversary Stanley Baldwin who was Prime Minister between 1935 and 1937. The wording given in the reference differed slightly from the version in the Reader’s Digest [WCKH]:
Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.
Halle used the label “Ear-witness” for the quote to indicate that she heard it though mutual friends and not directly from Churchill. Also, she estimated that it was said around 1936.
In 1945 the syndicated newspaper columnist Charles G. Sampas printed a modern variant of the saying that referred to men in general instead of a specific man [WCCS]:
Men occasionally stumble over truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. (Churchill)
Here are additional selected citations and details in chronological order.