Madness of King George was 'caused by arsenic'

A chemical analysis of the king's hair found concentrations of arsenic that are many times greater than normal, according to a study published today. Scientists believe the arsenic may have caused the onset of an inherited predisposition to an illness called porphyria, a metabolic disease that causes a build up of toxins in the blood. That could explain why King George III (1738-1820) suffered such severe attacks so late in his life.

The descent of the king into madness has been one of the most famous episodes in the history of the Royal family and was chronicled in an award-winning stage play and film, The Madness of King George. His bouts of deranged behaviour caused him to be put in a straitjacket, chained to a chair and forcibly fed a cocktail of medicines.

Professor Martin Warren of the University of Kent at Canterbury said there was little doubt the king was at risk of porphyria, but it was his exposure to arsenic that led him to have several severe attacks after the age of 50.

Writing in the journal The Lancet, Professor Warren and his colleagues say that the king was given an "emetic tartar" medicine made from antimony, which is known to have been contaminated with relatively high levels of arsenic. "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," Professor Warren said. "We propose that exposure to arsenic would exacerbate attacks of porphyria in a genetically predisposed individual. We feel the case for porphyria is as strong as we can make it," he added.

Historians who have studied the medical records of various descendants of King George, who died in 1820 after a 40-year reign, believe he suffered a genetic condition that led to the faulty production of a protein in the blood, causing his urine to turn red, as well as his madness. The many symptoms of porphyria include lameness, hoarseness, acute abdominal and limb pain, a racing pulse, insomnia, temporary mental disturbance and discoloured urine - some of which are known to have been suffered by the king.

During his reign, King George suffered five major episodes of prolonged and profound mental derangement but, curiously, they did not occur before middle age, which led the scientists to search for a possible trigger.

Professor Warren and his colleagues analysed a lock of the king's hair which had been kept at the Science Museum in London to see if he had been exposed to any toxic metals. They found that the concentration of arsenic in the hair was 17 parts per million (ppm), compared to typical levels of between 0.05ppm and 0.25ppm.

Professor Warren said there were other possible sources of arsenic, such as the powered wigs worn by the king, and that these may have caused the initial symptoms that were then exacerbated by his medicine. "It was really quite surprising to see such high levels of arsenic in his hair. I think this does offer such a wonderful solution to it all," Professor Warren said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there