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King George III and Porphyria and You

Since our last blog mentioned that one way to gain media attention is to enlighten them on the significance of Porphyria and the Revolutionary War. Namely, King George III, often known as Mad King George, was the reigning king of Great Britian and Ireland from 1760-1820. The APF has a letter signed “GR” to the Lord Chancellor, Kew, Feb. 23rd 1789 and is the one single document in English history in which medical and political history are joined. It is difficult to imagine a more important autograph letter marking a happier occasion in George III’s life-long battle with the illness that entirely unjustly, saddled him with the epithet “Mad King George.”

George III was born in 1738, first son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta. He married his beloved wife, Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz in 1761. The couple produced a prolific fifteen children: nine sons and six daughters. George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, in 1760 and became one of the longest ruling Monarch of the British crown. Sadly, George III died blind, deaf and mentally ill at Windsor Castle on January 29, 1820.

Since George III ruled during the American Revolution, he was thought by many historians to have had a significant impact on Britain's loss to the revolutionaries. His mental and physical lapses were blamed for much of the mishandling of the war.

King George lost his American colonies south of Canada by the Peace of Paris in 1783 and was notified by his Lord Chancellor, Edward Thurlow. During that period, George had a number of bouts of illness which made it difficult for the leaders to take timely action, including military decisions. His illness created enormous complications for his kingdom. Much pressure was also placed on the royal physicians, who were distressed over their utter inability to diagnose or alleviate his painful malady. The physicians meticulously recorded each attack and in some, described him as “arbitrary, capricious, given to fits of rage and to long periods of depression.” Occasionally he even had to be restrained physically.

Although he had his first attack at age twenty six, the illness began again when he as about 50 years old. Sir George Baker was the main royal physician at the time, so when King George began suffering another severe bout, he summoned Baker. The

king first experienced severe abdominal pain and constipation, followed by weak limbs, a fast pulse, hoarseness, fever and strange dark red urine. Over a short period of time, he began experiencing a multitude of other symptoms: headaches, visual problems, restlessness, delirium, convulsions, and insomnia. Because his attacks waxed and waned, Parliament was continually debating his ability to rule and continually threatening to wrest his kingdom form him. All of his symptoms were similar to those described by other porphyrics; severe abdominal pain, breathing problems, a rash and muscle cramps.

Part of the problem was that in George III's time, doctors were permitted to do very little to what they called the “royal body,” so they had to base their diagnoses on what the king told them. Dr. Baker prescribed the standard purgative of that day: castor oil and senna. Instead of the purgatives relieving King George of his symptoms, they made his condition far worse. When the pain intensified, he was prescribed laudanum, which also did not ease the pain. During later attacks, according to notes made by the physician, King George became so agitated and was talking so incessantly and violently that his physicians had to confine him to a straitjacket.

Quizzically, they also mentioned that he had dark reddish-purple stains in his bed clothes during these sieges of physical pain and what they referred to as periods of “madness.” Since the royal physicians were not permitted to conduct extensive physical examinations, they had to greatly depend on King George’s descriptions of his symptoms. On one particular occasion when he was suffering an exceptionally bad mental relapse, Parliament openly debated his ability to maintain his position as King. Shortly thereafter, he spontaneously recovered, further validating the idea in the minds of many that he was emotionally ill.

By the middle of November, 1788, the accumulated symptoms of the King’s illness had led to government-wide fears for his life and sanity. This forced the King’s first minister, William Pitt the Younger, to propose a Regency Bill, which would have transferred the King’s power to the improvident Prince of Wales, who was the enemy to both Pitt and the King. As this debate proceeded, George III’s ministers, convened in a cabinet meeting by the Prince of Wales, decided to move the King from Windsor to Kew, a luxurious place of confinement and attempted marginalization nonetheless. Through all this, Lord Chancellor Thurlow, who had been one of the King’s staunchest proponents of his absolute sovereignty over his American colonies during the Revolutionary War, kept his options open with both sides.

Months passed and the King remained at Kew Palace. While there, he endured a humiliating regime at the hands of Dr. Francis Willis, including confinement in a straight jacket and fixed restraint in a chair if he did not precisely follow Willis’ directions. Because of the nature of porphyria, George III recovered naturally from this attack, which had begun to recede noticeably by January, 1789. When the Lord Chancellor saw that the King’s recovery was likely to prove complete, he jumped fully into the King and Pitt’s camp, and moved to adjourn the Regency Bill’s third reading on February 19, 1789. Four days later George III decided that he could notify all his allies – and serve notice on all his political enemies – that he had fully recovered and was ready to resume full sovereignty.

He suffered a relapse thirteen years later, then again three years after that. The symptoms appeared in the same order, beginning with abdominal pain, fever, and weakness and progressing to mental difficulties. Finally, an attack in 1811 placed him in an apparently permanent stupor. That was the proverbial “last straw” for the Lords of Parliament. At that reoccurrence his son, George, the Prince of Wales had him dethroned. While he lived for several more years, he continued to experience further episodes of porphyria.

In the letter George III wrote to the Lord Chancellor, in which he relates the details of a meeting he had just held that very day with the Prince of Wales (with whom a successful meeting, in particular, implicitly testified to the King’s complete recovery of his nerves) and intimates that Thurlow should convey the same to “Mr. Pitt whom I propose seeing tomorrow Morning”. By conveying these and related details, and at the same time thanking “the Nation at large to whom I am so much indebted for the Support and anxiety shewn during my illness,” George III consolidated the support that saw him successfully through the Regency Crisis, and through his next two porphyria attacks (1801 and 1804), as well.

In other words, the letter, written from Kew, which was the scene of both the worst of George III’s ordeal, and his recovery, explicitly marks George III’s forceful, yet diplomatic re-entry into politics and the business of government. His final phrase of the letter concerns “supplies for the Current year,” i.e., the 1789 royal budget. Within days of his letter, George III had fully resumed his duties as King.

Medical historians Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter first proposed that the King George had porphyria in their historical monograph, George III and the Mad-Business. It had long been suspected that King George III had porphyria, but this assumption was not proven until scientists exhumed the bodies of family members and performed DNA studies.

I also had a personal experience over this questions. A British Lord came to visit a friend of mine in Houston. He wanted to have a typical Texas experience, so she ask Dick and me to take him to the hill country of Texas where we had a lake home. He was a lovely guest and was thrilled when he we took him to the first dance hall, in Gruene . He had fund doing the two step and watching all the terrific dancers whirling in a circle.

The next morning over coffee, he told me he loved the dance hall and the Wimberly, Texas "pie social" better than all other experiences. I was so sick that I could not share his delight. He told me that he didn't share his delight and my sickness was porphyria.....not a hangover as I don't drink. He asked me what was wrong and I said my usual, "Nothing." But he insisted that something was wrong at which point I said it was a disease that he most likely had never heard of and I said, "Porphyria. "

" I know it well , " he said. " My wife was in the lineage of George III and her brother had pophyria. " What about that for a coincident !!!!!

You can Google the subject and even see paintings of King George and others in the Royal Family who are deemed to have the disease. It makes for an interesting story for the media so it is something to gain the attention of a local reporter.


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