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George III's madness fuelled by arsenic

Taken from The New Scientist, 30 July 2005

Arsenic poisoning may have contributed to the madness of Britain's King George III. During his last illness, his son George, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead.

George III suffered five major bouts of mental derangement during which he was bound in a straitjacket and chained to a chair to control his ravings. Scientists agree that his behaviour was caused by porphyria, a genetic defect that leads to faulty protein synthesis in the body and accounts for the king's physical and psychiatric symptoms. But despite years of speculation, nobody could explain conclusively why his attacks were so severe and lasted for so long, until now.

Researchers analysed strands of the king's hair looking for signs of lead or mercury exposure that could have explained his symptoms. Instead, they were surprised to find high concentrations of arsenic, which could have come from his medication (The Lancet, vol 366, p 332). "The level was a thousand times as high as in our control samples and 17 times as high as the amount associated with arsenic poisoning," says Martin Warren at the University of Kent, UK.

Warren and his colleagues searched through the king's medical notes and found that he was given a compound called emetic tartar to alleviate the severe stomach cramps associated with porphyria. "These drugs, which were supposed to make him feel better, were probably contaminated with arsenic," says Warren. "They only exacerbated his illness."

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