J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

“The Immediate Cause of His Late Majesty’s Sudden Death”

George II died on 25 Oct 1760, at the age of seventy-seven. That was a long life, especially in the eighteenth century, but the king’s death was still sudden. About seven one morning, servants heard a thump from his rooms, and found him lying on the floor. Although the royal surgeon tried bleeding, it soon became clear that the king was most sincerely dead.

Readers of the Boston Post-Boy on 29 Dec 1760 got this news report from London, dated 4 November:

The following is an account of what appeared to the Surgeons upon opening the body of his late Majesty.

Kensington Palace Oct 26. 1760
“In obedience to the order transmitted to us by the Rt. Hon. Mr. Vice Chamberlain. We the under-signed have this day opened and examined the body of his late Majesty, in preserve of Sir Edward Wilmot, Bar[one]t and Dr Nichols, two of his late Majesty’s physicians; and first, on opening the Belly, we found all the parts therein contained in a natural and healthy state, except only that on the surface of each kidney there were some hydatides, or watery bladders, which however, we determined could not have been at this time of material consequence.

On opening the Breast we observed the pericardium or bag which contains the heart, to be very extended, which was owing to a large effusion of blood that had been discharged therein from a rupture in the substance of the right venticle [sic] of the heart. The quantity of the blood in the pericardium was at least a pint, the most of which was strongly coagulated.

The rupture of the venticle, and the consequent effusion of the blood in the pericardium, were certainly the immediate cause of his late Majesty’s sudden death. The brain lungs, and all the other parts were in a perfect state.

E. Wilmot,
Fr. Nicholls,
John Ranby.
C Hawkins[”]
The newspaper went on to say:
The case of a rupture in the heart of a great personage, is look’d upon by the medicinal gentlemen as without example, inasmuch that had the fact been certified by people of less eminent abilities in anatomy, than those to whom the inspection was committed, it would have staggered the faith of the faculty.
George II’s bowels were placed in an urn and taken to Westminster while the rest of his body laid in state in the House of Lords. The corpse was placed in a lead coffin, which was then placed in a mahogany coffin, which was finally placed in one “of lead, covered with purple velvet.” The coffins and corpse were interred “in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.”

I learned about this article from this article from the Historical Society about the transmission of news from Britain to North America. Typing up that article apparently triggered a spellchecker to change “hydatides” to “hydrides.”

Dr. Nicholls sent a much longer description of the autopsy to the Royal Society in 1761, and it was published the next year. It offered more detail, such as that none of the hydatides “exceeded the bulk of a common walnut”; the spelling “ventricle”; and not one but two colored images of the king’s heart. The physician also wrote that it was natural for the king to have strained his aorta just before he died, “having been at the necessary-stool.”

Some people might have seen Nicholls’s report as an invasion of royal privacy or even an affront to royal dignity. But the article stated at the outset:
The inclosed papers have been laid before the Lord Chamberlain, for his Majesty [George III]’s inspection; and his Majesty’s answer was, That he saw no reason, why they may not be made public.
Later in life George III would, of course, have his own medical problems.

TOMORROW: CSI: Saratoga.


DAG said...

Yes, King George III did have serious health problems. The colonies got sick him.

John L. Smith said...

What's with taking his bowels?! I'd like to know the reason for that...if anyone out there knows? Was that as standard as bleeding?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m guessing the king’s bowels were put in a separate urn because (a) the doctors had already taken them out to examine, and (b) the body was going to lie in state in the House of Lords, so folks might have wanted to take away the parts that would start to smell first.