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Royal Herring

In response to:

The Wolf's Clothing from the December 14, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

I disagree wholly with Jack Plumb’s discussion of George III’s illness in his recent review of books on the king by John Brooke and Stanley Ayling (NYR, December 14).

Plumb has failed to see that the issue of the king’s sanity stands separate from the question whether he suffered from porphyria. Brooke presents a convincing case for concluding that George III was not mad; only as a tailpiece does he remark that the diagnosis of porphyria is the medical offering which so far best fits the historical facts. If George III’s behavior had been abnormal at any time during the first twenty-eight years of his reign, before his attack in 1788, the courtiers who constantly surrounded him would have known it; so would the ministers, who transacted business individually with him several days each week; so would the pages who waited at his table and who slept ready at call in his dressing room; so would the queen—above all the queen, who slept in his bed and bore his fifteen children.

A veil of secrecy over erratic behavior could not conceivably have been maintained. The greatest political gossip of the age, Horace Walpole, never heard a whisper of madness, or he would certainly have recorded it. There is nothing to suggest it in the mass of political correspondence for the middle years of the reign, in which I have read extensively. Plumb’s praise for the character of the despicable Prince of Wales is incomprehensible; well though the king might have, he never, however, displayed toward the prince the violent hatred shown toward his own father by his grandparents—yet I do not recollect that George II and Queen Caroline stand accused of madness. Had George III been neurotic, there were periods of intense personal crisis when he should have suffered breakdown—in 1772-3, in 1775-6, in 1782-3—but this did not happen.

Plumb refers to George III’s fears of losing his sanity; but any competent alienist would point out that the insane never recognise that they are in such a condition. George III’s self-knowledge on this subject is in fact one of the clearest proofs that he was perfectly sane.

Plumb’s dismissal of the thesis put forward by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter, that George III suffered from porphyria, is equally flimsy. He is wrong to say “the medical profession” is against it. Macalpine’s and Hunter’s first announcement went through the tooth-comb of the British Medical Association’s editorial committee, and two British experts, Professor Rimington of London and Professor Goldberg of Edinburgh, supported them in print. There is abundant evidence, so abundant that medical critics trying to make alternative applications of it produce a dog’s breakfast. The odds are insuperable against all George III’s various symptoms being produced together, within certain narrow periods of time, by a whole series of different agencies of causation.

Plumb says, why aren’t the descendants tested? Doesn’t he understand the royal and aristocratic classes’ resentment of intrusion into privacy? Macalpine and Hunter know it from bitter experience. They did well to obtain any information at all from living descendants. By the standards of deviation from the norm in certain chemical tests, established by experts up to six years ago, they had identified four cases among the few people they found willing to be tested. In the middle of the argument the rules got changed; even so there is one indisputable case known today, revealed to them by another practitioner under pledge of confidence. Critics have scorned the testimony of an unnamed doctor. This will not do. I learned his identity by accident and I will not break confidences; but I will say that he is an eminent specialist of long experience, his supervision of his patient was prolonged, allowing ample time for firm diagnosis, and unlike most doctors dealing with this malady, he also has expertise in biochemistry which gave his pronouncement exceptional authority. His evidence is beyond question. Porphyria still exists among living descendants of the Hanoverians and therefore George III may well have suffered from it.

Ian R. Christie

Department of History

University College London

J.H Plumb replies:

Ian Christie has been an ardent protagonist of porphyria since the first publication of the thesis. I accept, indeed I did in the review, that the evidence for George III’s mental disturbance before 1788 was not strong, but it is not entirely negligible either. Again, Christie’s knowledge of neurotics must be very limited if he thinks that they break down always during the period of strain. As was pointed out to him in The Times Literary Supplement years ago by a distinguished psychologist, they frequently break down after the strain is over. As for my praise of the Prince of Wales being incomprehensible, it would be perfectly comprehensible to a large number of the Prince’s contemporaries. If Christie believes that George III’s behavior to his daughters was normal, he must have very odd ideas of parenthood. What I criticized in Brooke’s biography was his cavalier treatment of these relationships.

As for porphyria, again as Christie well knows, distinguished members of the medical profession (e.g., Dr. Dean, one of the world’s leading authorities on porphyria) also rejected the thesis. Again as Christie knows, in the classic South African case of inherited porphyria, there was no difficulty in tracing over two hundred carriers of the disease inherited from the initial victim of porphyria. I cannot believe that the hundred upon hundred of the descendants of James I (of whom George III was one), who is supposed to be the main source of royal porphyria, could have avoided this genetically inherited disease. But the old aristocracy, in which there is plenty of Stuart blood, do not seem to be alive with it.

However, porphyria is a red herring, even the madness is something of a pink herring. What we need to keep in mind are George III’s politics—and politically he was a disaster. What disturbed me in Brooke’s biography was the uncritical attitude to his political activities—Tory history replacing Whig history.

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