By Jeremy Lovell
LONDON (Reuters) - Far from making him better, the medication used to treat the madness of England's King George III may actually have made him worse, according to research published Friday.
One of the longest serving British monarchs who ruled for nearly 60 years, George had five very public bouts of madness culminating in his death -- blind, deaf and insane in January 1820.
The generally accepted theory has been that his fits of insanity -- the best documented lasting from October 1788 to February 1789 and triggering a constitutional crisis -- were due to a genetic disorder that caused variegate porphyria.
But there was no explanation of why the disease that causes symptoms such as lameness, hoarseness, acute abdominal pain, insomnia and temporary mental disturbances hit so late in his life or why the bouts were so deep and lasted so long.
Now a team of scientists from Britain and Australia have found high concentrations of arsenic in samples of the king's hair and suggested it came from the antimony-based medicine administered -- sometimes by force -- to cure him.
"If George III did indeed inherit the inborn error of metabolism that causes porphyria, he would be sensitised to the effects of arsenic and other heavy metals," they wrote in Friday's issue of the Lancet medical journal.
"Indeed, amounts of toxic metal insufficient to induce frank poisoning would, in all probability exacerbate porphyric attacks in a susceptible individual," they added. "The toxic metal most abundant in our findings was arsenic."
And it was not that the king's physicians were trying to kill him. Even into the 20th century arsenic was widely used as a medicine.
The researchers found that the principal tonic administered to the king during his bouts of insanity was emetic tartar which contained antimony which in turn was commonly contaminated by up to five percent arsenic.
According to medical records of the time, George was sometimes forced to take medicine that would have contained up to nine milligrammes of arsenic a day -- well below a lethal dose but easily enough to cause chronic poisoning.
"The presence of arsenic in a sample of the king's hair provides a plausible explanation for the length and severity of his attacks of illness; and contamination of his antimonial medications is the probable source of the arsenic," the scientists wrote.
King George III does some very odd things, but then who is to argue with the king? Well, his ambitious son, for one. He's not getting any younger, and all he does is sit around waiting for his father to die. So when the king starts behaving like a real madman, the Prince of Wales lobbies Parliament to assign him the power of prince regent. What ensues is a political struggle between the prime minister, a royalist, and the opposition party. In the meantime, the king is slowly being tortured by the strange practices of 18th-century medicine: He is bled regularly, and his feces are analyzed by all manner of doctors. To rectify this atrocity, the king's distressed entourage solicits the aid of a country doctor who's as unsuccessful as his predecessors but a little more humane. When it seems as if he will be forced to abdicate his throne, George III regains his sanity just in time to assure the Parliament that he's able to rule. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring an Oscar-nominated tour-de-force performance from Nigel Hawthorne, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE is an unforgettable romp through a crucial period in English history.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Cast and Credits
Starring: Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm, Amanda Donohoe, Rupert Graves
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Produced by: Stephen Evans, David Parfitt