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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Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Illness of George III

The Georgian Papers Programme is an international effort to study the papers of George III, his family, and his two immediate successors.

In Britain the B.B.C. just ran a television show highlighting some of the early discoveries, and this article highlights a new theory about the nature of the king’s insanity aired on that show.

As the B.B.C. story says, for quite a while the prevailing diagnosis of George III’s illness has been porphyria. I remember learning that around the time of the Bicentennial. The only medical detail that stuck with me was that it caused the king to have blue or purple urine. (Hey, I was ten.)

This article presents a less colorful diagnosis:
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.

A 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.
I wonder if other stylometric measurements, such as the use of pronouns or other tested variables, might indicate periods of depression.

But what about that memorable 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.
It’s notable that this hypothesis comes from a neurologist and a linguist. Historians have generally shied away from applying modern psychiatric diagnoses to figures of the past, both because of the distance in time and because of the way such diagnoses are culturally and historically defined. As certain conditions are more clearly linked to brain chemistry, that might change. I’ve discussed other possible cases of bipolar disorder in Revolutionary times.

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