King George’s Letters of Note – Madness? Yes or No

King George’s Letters of Note – Madness? Yes or No

King George III – A Cultured Monarch Prone to Madness

The history, and for some, the mystery of the mental health of King George III continues to be a source of interest. A new study has opened the door to discount the theory that the king was mad.

Diagnosis Porphyria

For years, the consensus has been King George suffered from porphyria, which is a blood disorder with symptoms such as confusion, anxiety, hallucinations, restlessness, and insomnia. These types of symptoms are also expressed by someone with a mental disorder.

In 2005, researchers noted the king may have been given doses of arsenic by his doctor for treatment of the symptoms, but the poison would, most likely, have caused his condition to decline versus getting better.

In 2010, the History of Psychiatry published in its journal an argument against King George suffering from porphyria. They based their theory on the limited evidence, noting the king’s urine was discoloured, which is a key indicator of porphyria.

Letters of Note

In the newest study published in the PLOS One journal, it is explained how researchers used a programmed computer to read King George’s letters of note.

Over a 60-year reign from 1760 – 1820, many letters were created by the king. The new study has taken these letters of note and had them “read” by a programmed computer.

The technique used to read letters of note is called machine learning. With this technique, researchers were able to teach the computer to tell the difference between those who have a mental disorder and those that do not use 29 written features. These features include the diversity of a person’s vocabulary, the variety of words used, and the frequency.

The Comparison

The computer searched for signs of the 29 programmed features in the king’s letters. The comparison covered different times throughout his reign.

The letters chosen for comparison were examples of both when he appeared to have all his faculties and appeared mentally stable, as well as letters that clearly showed he was not well. The computer findings showed significant differences between the two.

As a professor of neurology at St. George’s University of London, Peter Garrard was also a co-author of the computer-generated writing analysis study. According to Garrard, “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.”

Letters of note from other times that could have had a direct impact on his mental state, such as wartime, peacetime, or even during different seasons. No differences in his language were found by the computer’s analysis, which suggests the differences that were found during the comparison were a sign of mental illness.

The Verdict

Based on the findings of the linguistic study and the results of the comparison, Garrard, and the other co-authors, are confident that the diagnosis of the king suffering from porphyria is “thoroughly discredited.”

After discounting the porphyria theory of the king’s changes in behaviour, they go on to share their opinion of what the computer comparison analysis found by writing, ” In the modern classification of mental illness, acute mania now appears to be the diagnosis that fits best with the available behavioural data.”

A person suffering from acute mania experiences a hyperactive condition that is similar to the manic phase a person exhibits suffering from bipolar disorder.