As Independence Day approaches, we look back on our nation’s history with awe, inspiration and thankfulness— as well as interest in the British monarch, King George III, who not only lost America but also lost his mind.
King George III’s reign lasted 60 years. It was punctuated with bouts of brilliance. The American Revolution was only one war out of many he sanctioned but it was nevertheless his greatest faux pas. He was querulous, arrogant and stubborn and far more interested in the sciences and arts than the legitimate grievances of his colonists.
Benjamin Franklin noted that America was under “the arbitrary power of a corrupt parliament that does not like us, and conceives itself to have an interest in keeping us down and fleecing us.”
It was during this battle of wills and wits with the Americans that King George’s illness may have begun to manifest itself. His intolerable and often erratic behavior is attributed to acute porphyria, a disease that causes a buildup of porphyrin compounds in the body, which are produced during the formation of one of the components of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying element in blood cells., King George’s own symptoms included abdominal pain, constipation, rashes, confusion, insomnia, anxiety, hallucinations and severe weakness of his limbs. Royal physicians noted that he also had dark red or blue urine during the times he was “mad.” Some triggers of porphyria are thought to be alcoholism, excessive smoking or stress. And surprisingly, more women than men tend to have it.
During his worst episodes, this happily married and moralistic monarch, and father of 15 children, wantonly chased ladies around the court, assaulted his family and royal servants, and babbled incoherently often without respite. Recently, Peter Garrard, a professor of neurology at St. George’s University of London, developed a computer software program that was able to differentiate between people with mental disorders and people who don’t suffer from them. The study was published in the journal PLOS One.
The computer analyzes written documents produced by the subject and identifies how complex sentences are as well as how rich a vocabulary and how frequently individual words are used. The researchers analyzed King George’s letters throughout his 60-year reign (1760-1820). The differences in the documents composed when the king’s behavior was normal compared with those he generated when his behavior was disturbed were palpable. They concluded that he suffered from intermittent periods of acute mania, a period of uncontrolled hyperactivity that resembles the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Dr. Garrard observed that “in the manic periods, we could see that he used less-rich vocabulary and fewer adverbs. He repeated words less often, and there was a lower degree of redundancy, or wordiness.” The computer’s analysis further suggested that the striking differences in his letters were due to mental illness.
What is little known is that his doctors might have worsened the king’s condition by treating him with medications that were tainted with arsenic, accidentally poisoning him and exacerbating his manias.
Over the years, King George relapsed several more times, recovering slowly on his own. However, the last 10 years of his life were utterly ruined. He became blind and deranged. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote about his final decade:
All the world knows the story of his malady: all history presents no sadder figure than that of the old man, blind and deprived of reason, wandering through the rooms of his palace, addressing imaginary parliaments, reviewing fancied troops, holding ghostly courts.
No one will ever know for certain what disease King George suffered from—only that he was America’s last king, presiding over a fated moment in our history.
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