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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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Streaming King George

This evening, Andrew Roberts is scheduled to speak at Mount Vernon on his new book The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. The public can view that talk starting at 7:00 P.M. through the estate’s website.

I recently listened to the History Extra podcast’s conversation with Roberts, which focused mainly on the charge that George III was tyrannical. American Patriots used that claim to justify their total break with the British system in July 1776, piling onto the king all the policies of the government he represented and describing them in the worst possible way.

Later British Whig writers also criticized George III for trying to exercise political power simply on the basis of inheritance. Roberts argues that really they disliked his preference for “Tories” even when Whigs held the majority in the House of Commons. In reality, he says, George III was barely involved in governing even before his illness.

That position makes a provocative contrast with the conversations about the prime ministers who served under George III on Iain Dale’s “The Prime Ministers” podcast. A recurring theme of those interviews is that getting along with the king was close to a prerequisite for prime ministers in the late eighteenth century. Men like William Pitt in the late 1750s and Charles James Fox in the early 1780s held power in the House of Commons but needed a more congenial, noble First Lord of the Treasury as a buffer between themselves and the king. George III may not have gotten deep into the details of policy, but he did get into personalities.

Another of Roberts’s contentions involves the illness that debilitated George III. Back in the early 1960s Drs. Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter argued that disease was porphyria in two British Medical Journal papers; a book, George III and the Mad Business; and a pamphlet, Porphyria: A Royal Malady. Not everyone was convinced, but their hypothesis got a lot of traction.

Indeed, I remember learning the word “porphyria” as a boy back in the Bicentennial era, solely because of King George. All I knew about the disease is that it could render people insane and turn their urine purple.

In 2011 Timothy Peters published a paper in the journal Clinical Medicine titled “King George III, bipolar disorder, porphyria and lessons for historians.” He lambasted Macalpine and Hunter’s diagnosis, writing, “it is clear that their interpretation of [the king’s symptoms] as diagnostic of acute porphyria was misleading and some interpretations were bordering on the fraudulent.”

As for the urine:
The discoloured urine claimed by Hunter to be ‘the final proof of the diagnosis’ is worthy of some mention. Macalpine was able to identify four occasions during the 30 years of the King’s recurrent illness when the physicians reported discolouration. They subsequently claimed a further two unidentified occasions when coloured urine was noted. The bluish particulate material in a single urine sample during his final attack in January 1811…is particularly noteworthy.

However, Macalpine and Hunter and other researchers have failed to point to the six occasions in the six weeks leading up to this event when the physicians referred to pale, clear, yellow and normal urine samples. A single visit to the British Library to confirm the blue urine referred to in the Willis papers would surely have signalled even to non-medics the possibility of selectivity. The observation that three days before the blue urine episode the King commenced a new medication, extract of gentian, was a ‘red flag’ to the present author.
Roberts clearly trusts Peters’s analysis of the case.

TOMORROW: So what was the madness of George III?

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