Tuesday, April 24, 2018

1810, What a Year It Was: the (Final) Madness of King George

We’ve talked about the some of the most noteworthy public events of 1810, from literary to sporting to true crime...but perhaps the most momentous was what happened in its final months: the descent of George III into permanent debilitation.

Everyone’s heard of “mad King George”, and doctors and medical historians have derived endless hours of diversion from trying to figure out just what it was that the poor man suffered from. The most recent thinking seems to be that he was indeed suffering from some form of mental illness, perhaps aggravated by arsenic poisoning (arsenic was commonly used in medical treatments of the day) and not porphyria, a metabolic disease. No matter the cause, the last months of 1810 would also be his last months as reigning monarch.

First, a little history: the king’s first confirmed demonstration of mental illness began in the fall of 1788, when various physical symptoms (rash, rheumatic pains, gastric distress, and fever) manifested, quickly followed by delirium, hysteria, and mania. He talked for hours on end, making grandiose, delusional plans and pronouncements until he was out of breath and foaming at the mouth. Though his physical symptoms eased, his behavioral ones did not (on November 17 he talked for nineteen straight hours), and between his ministers and his family, plans were made for a regency to rule in his stead...a plan that fell through when, early in the new year, he began to recover and was able by March to call himself mostly recovered.  He seems to have suffered a brief relapse in 1794 (though not as severe as the 1788 illness) and again in 1801. After that point, his condition seems to have remained highly fragile, with more relapses and recoveries occurring over the next few years.

By October 1810, George III was 72 years old and suffering from cataracts and painful rheumatism. He’d been devastated by the deaths of two of his children in the 1780s, while they were quite young. But now it appeared that he would be facing the death of an adult child—one whose very existence had helped him over those earlier losses.  Princess Amelia, his youngest daughter, had been a semi-invalid for years, probably suffering from tuberculosis, and by this time, was on death’s doorstep. The king’s poor eyesight had perhaps cushioned him somewhat from the truth—he could hardly see how ill she was—but toward the end even that could not shield him from the reality of his daughter’s condition. As her life ebbed, his old, familiar symptoms began to reappear: nervousness and excitability, over-talkativeness, sleeplessness. In her last week of life, he too slipped away into a twilight world, and was too ill to comprehend that Amelia was dead.

The king had realized, early on, that he was in for another period of illness, and instructed his physicians that he was not to be entrusted to any “medical man specially engaged in the department of insanity,” but the doctor who had looked after him in earlier periods, Robert Willis, was brought in to consult. Poor George had days when he seemed almost normal over the course of November and December, but enough bad days encouraged the revival of the Regency bill that had first been drafted (and nearly passed by Parliament) back in 1789.  Everyone—his family, servants, and ministers—waited with bated breath to see what would happen. More lucid days in January occurred, but while there were hopes that he would once again recover, the Regency bill was voted on and passed Parliament, with George’s knowledge, at the end of the month, and Prince George became Regent with limited powers, to be reviewed in one year’s time (presumably in case the king recovered.)

However, it became clear through the spring that recovery was unlikely: while he still had periods of lucidity, the king slipped inexorably into his delusional world, talking and giving commands to people who weren’t there, and seemed to forget his affection for his family. The lucid periods became fewer, and in the fall it was expected that at the one-year anniversary of the Regency Act in January 1812, the regency would be made permanent. Poor King George would hang on for another eight years, growing blinder and sicker, until his death in 1820.

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