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King George III (1738-1820)

George III is the UK’s longest-serving king. His turbulent reign spanned nearly 60 years, and to date is only surpassed by that of his granddaughter, Queen Victoria. He was sometimes popular and sometimes loathed. George’s rule was hampered by mental health problems, though his aides attempted to hide his illness. He was nicknamed ‘Mad King George’. His problems have been attributed to a genetic condition called porphyria, symptoms of which can include severe mental confusion.

George had mild bouts of illness early in his reign, but his health significantly deteriorated from the 1780s. He experienced recurring episodes of severe mental trauma during which he was often physically restrained. Royal courtiers consulted physicians and others offering treatments, including Francis Willis. Willis later became a pioneer of what became known in the 1800s as moral treatment. The last two decades of George’s life contained periods of ‘madness’ and remission, but his health continued to decline. The Regency Act of 1811 effectively passed many royal responsibilities to his son George, the Prince of Wales.

Laboratory investigations have shed light on the king’s mental health. Among the Science Museum’s medical collections is an envelope containing hair taken from George III’s head after his death. Analysis found it to be laden with arsenic at a concentration over 300 times that considered toxic. Arsenic is a poison known to trigger porphyria. A likely source of arsenic was James’s Powders, a common medicine regularly given to George. Researchers concluded the arsenic from the medication treating his illness actually made it worse.

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Bibliography

I Macalpine and R Hunter, George III and the Mad Business (London: Allen Lane, 1969)

C Hibbert, George III: A personal history (London: Viking, 1998)

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