- Last year a remarkable exhibit came to light. Hidden
in the vaults of a London museum was a scrap of paper containing a few
strands of hair.
- The paper was crudely fashioned into an envelope but
the words on it immediately caused a stir: "Hair of His Late Majesty,
King George 3rd."
- For Professor Martin Warren, it was the clue that would
help him finally solve the mystery of King George's illness. His investigation
is featured in a BBC documentary, Medical Mysteries.
- "King George is largely remembered for those periods
when he lost his mind. But it's been difficult to explain these attacks,
so I was keen to analyse this hair sample," said Professor Warren.
- When the hair was tested by the Harwell International
Business Centre for Science & Technology in Didcot, Oxfordshire, the
results were surprising.
- The king's hair was laden with arsenic. It contained
over 300 times the toxic level.
- "This level is way above anything we were expecting
- it's taken us completely by surprise."
- More detective work
- Far from being an answer, this remarkable finding was
just the start of Warren's detective work.
- In King George's time, his bizarre behaviour and wild
outbursts were treated as insanity.
- He was bound in a straitjacket and chained to a chair
to control his ravings. King George was officially mad.
- It wasn't until the 1970s that a new and controversial
diagnosis was made.
- Two psychiatrists - Ida MacAlpine and her son Richard
Hunter - revisited the king's medical records and noticed a key symptom;
dark red urine - a classic and unmistakable sign of a rare blood disorder
- Porphyria can be a devastating disease. In the acute
form, it can cause severe abdominal pain, cramps, and even seizure-like
- It is frequently misdiagnosed, and even in modern times,
some sufferers have been thought to be mentally ill.
- Pauline Bradshaw was 40 when she was finally diagnosed
with acute porphyria.
- "I was very confused and frightened, because I didn't
know why I was feeling so bad," she said.
- "Every day was this battle, you know, feeling sick
and dizzy not knowing what was wrong or what was causing it."
- For years her GP put her symptoms down to depression
and prescribed anti-depressants, but when a relative wrote to say she had
been diagnosed with acute porphyria, Pauline's symptoms fell into place.
- Since then, with support from the British Porphyria Association,
she has learnt how to live with this incurable condition.
- One of the great mysteries of King George's porphyria
was the severity of his attacks.
- It is rare for men to suffer this acute form at all -
normally males show no symptoms.
- And - a final puzzle - King George didn't have any attacks
before his 50s.
- Arsenic to blame?
- Professor Warren knew that porphyria attacks can be triggered
by a wide range of substances - alcohol, common medication, even monthly
hormones. Perhaps arsenic could also be a trigger.
- He contacted Professor Tim Cox, an expert on extreme
cases of porphyria at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.
- Professor Cox confirmed his guess - arsenic was listed
as a trigger. And the massive levels found in King George's hair suggested
that the arsenic had been liberally ingested over a long period of time.
- The two professors began poring over the King's medical
records preserved in the Royal archive at Windsor.
- There was passing reference to arsenic used as a skin
cream, and as wig powder, but nothing that could explain the staggering
levels of arsenic showing up in the king's hair.
- The most common medication he was given was James' powders,
a routine medicine he was being given several times a day - made of a substance
- Final clue
- Tracking down James' powders at the Royal Pharmaceutical
Society, Warren found the final piece of the puzzle in a 19th century almanac.
- Antimony, even when purified, contains significant traces
- The arsenic from the very medication he was being given
to control his "madness" was triggering more attacks.
- His porphyric attacks had been brought on after a lifetime's
arsenic accumulated in his body, and then were made much more prolonged
and more severe by the medicine to treat him.
- For professor it is the end of a long trail.
- "It is a very convincing explanation of the king's
attacks, and could account for why he had them at such a late stage in
life and why they were so severe.
- "So in that sense, yes, it's very satisfying."
- © BBC MMIV http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3889903.stm