What was the truth about the madness of George III?

National-Debt-GillrayModern medicine may help us to discover the real reasons behind King George III’s erratic behaviour, writes historian Lucy Worsley.

George III is well known in children’s history books for being the “mad king who lost America”. In recent years, though, it has become fashionable among historians to put his “madness” down to the physical, genetic blood disorder called porphyria. Its symptoms include aches and pains, as well as blue urine.

The theory formed the basis of a long-running play by Alan Bennett, The Madness of George III, which was later adapted for film starring Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. However, a new research project based at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, has concluded that George III did actually suffer from mental illness after all. Using the evidence of thousands of George III’s own handwritten letters, Dr Peter Garrard and Dr Vassiliki Rentoumi have been analysing his use of language. They have discovered that during his episodes of illness, his sentences were much longer than when he was well.

George_III_ZoffanyA sentence containing 400 words and eight verbs was not unusual. George III, when ill, often repeated himself, and at the same time his vocabulary became much more complex, creative and colourful. These are features that can be seen today in the writing and speech of patients experiencing the manic phase of psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder.

Mania, or harmful euphoria, is at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with sadness, or depression, at the other. George’s being in a manic state would also match contemporary descriptions of his illness by witnesses.

They spoke of his “incessant loquacity” and his habit of talking until the foam ran out of his mouth. Sometimes he suffered from convulsions, and his pages had to sit on him to keep him safe on the floor. The researchers have even thrown doubt on one of the key planks in the case for porphyria, the blue urine. George III’s medical records show that the king was given medicine based on gentian. This plant, with its deep blue flowers, is still used today as a mild tonic, but may turn the urine blue.

So maybe it wasn’t the king’s “madness” that caused his most famous symptom. It could have simply been his medicine. More here What was the truth about the madness of George III?.

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.