King George III's Madness Worsened by Arsenic

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Dead men don't talk, but hair from a long-dead English king may prompt a rewrite of the monarch's madness.

The dead royal is King George III. He had five major bouts of madness, and arsenic in his treatment may have made matters worse.

That's the verdict of researchers investigating the case, nearly two centuries after the king's death. The results appear in The Lancet.

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Royal Madness

King George III lived from 1738-1820. He reigned from 1760 until his death.

During that time, England had epic highs, like defeating Napoleon and spreading its empire. It also had a stunning low in losing the Revolutionary War and a constitutional crisis during one episode of the king's madness.

King George III's woes probably weren't just burdens of wearing the crown. They may have stemmed from a metabolic disorder called porphyria and was aggravated by arsenic in the king's treatment, write the researchers.

They included Professor Martin Warren, PhD, of the biosciences department at England's University of Kent.

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Strand of Evidence

Warren and colleagues tested a sample of King George III's hair. The lock of hair had been snipped when the king died. It's been on display at London's Science Museum.

The hair sample was carefully treated to remove any contaminants on its surface. Next, it got a metal test.

If the king had porphyria, exposure to certain metals might have affected his health, write the researchers. The disease, which can lead to personality changes, results from abnormalities in the production of a red blood cell molecule called heme, which carries oxygen. Attacks can be triggered by exposure to various substances including chemicals.

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Telltale Findings

Lead levels in the king's hair were slightly higher than normal. That's not surprising. Lead was used in plumbing, cooking utensils, glassware, and other items of the king's day, write the researchers.

Arsenic levels were also high. Arsenic was part of the king's madness treatment. It became a popular medicine in the 18th century and was widely used for syphilis and skin problems by 1785, write the researchers.

Arsenic was found all the way along the hair. That suggests that it seeped into the hair while the king was alive, write the researchers.

Still, they say it's impossible to be certain of that, since arsenic trioxide is also used as an insecticide in preservation.

Dreadful Days at the Castle

King George III had to be tricked or forced to get his treatments, write the researchers.

They cite a note written in 1811 by Henry Halford, one of the king's doctors:

"This has been a day of considerable excitement throughout the whole of it — His Majesty's medicine was given to him by force at 7 o'clock and this has certainly contributed to increase his irritation and irascibility which has prevailed ever since."

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Cox, T. The Lancet, July 23, 2005; vol 366: pp 332-335. News release, The Lancet.