Monday 3 July 2023

I'm delighted to welcome Michael Ramscar, for a story George III...


‘George III’s Illnesses and His Doctors’, by Michael Ramscar

The profile of Queen Charlotte has been raised in the last year by the popularity of both Bridgerton and the eponymous Netflix series, but while these are immensely enjoyable historical fiction accounts, the real story of Queen Charlotte and George III was a moving one of romance, and ultimately of tragedy.

The marriage was an arranged one, with George choosing his bride from a ‘shopping list’ of German princesses. Ironically, Charlotte wasn’t even his first choice, yet the union became a love match and a highly successful partnership, which only began to fray at the edges in 1788/9 when the king first suffered from mental illness. The nature of their relationship is shown in Gillray’s cartoon ‘The Constant Couple’ of 1786 which is an affectionate and gentle satire which emphasises the closeness of the relationship and illustrates how the couple had essentially become the embodiment of the nation.

In the recently published book ‘George III’s Illnesses and His Doctors’, the impact of the King’s illness on his family and on the wider society of the UK is traced. Queen Charlotte was understandably distressed by the illness, and by some of the ‘treatment’ which the King received at the hands of his doctors, treatment which was brutal and inhumane but which was the norm at the time for those diagnosed to be insane. Eventually, in desperation, she gave consent for two of the king’s sons to turn to a ‘quack’ practitioner called James Lucett, who claimed to have a ‘cure’ for insanity which did not rely upon the endless round of restraint and isolation, purging and bleeding practised by the ‘specialist’ doctors who were treating him. 

The book follows the relationship of the royals with Lucett, and the setting up of expe

riments to test his claims, which was in effect the first therapeutic trial in the history of psychiatry. Unfortunately for both Lucett and for the poor king, the ‘cure’ proved to be only temporary, although it did give immediate relief to some very difficult patients, and in the end it was not used on George. He continued to suffer the ministrations of his doctors and eventually languished in strict isolation in Windsor Castle for his final years, losing his grip on any kind of reality and unable to recognise even his beloved wife Charlotte.

George III’s Illnesses and His Doctors’ is based on contemporary archive material and sets out the story of this human tragedy and the very profound effect that the king’s illness and Lucett’s subsequent career had on the development of modern psychiatry. Simply because of fact that he was the king, George’s illness drove a re-think about what was acceptable treatment for the insane; he could not simply be locked up in Bedlam and ignored as so many other poor lunatics were. Lucett was undoubtedly a scoundrel and a quack, with no formal medical qualifications to his name, but in his subsequent career he pioneered a much more humane treatment of the insane. He set up private asylums where the patients, free from chains or straightjackets, were treated with dignity and occupations such as gardening were encouraged to help them to recover their sanity. He had some success in these ventures and patients did recover their reason under this humane regime free from the cruelty and degradation of the orthodox practice of trying to intimidate patients back to health. Lucett was an extraordinary person to have been in the forefront of psychiatric reform – he spent time in a debtor’s prison and his chequered career involved some hair-raising episodes of fraud and corruption - but he was ultimately a force for good.

The parallel accounts of George III and of Lucett provide a fascinating story of what happened to the king, how it affected his relationship with Queen Charlotte, and the impact that it subsequently had upon the treatment of mental illness. This account may not have quite the popular appeal of a gorgeously costumed TV series, but it tells of the profound effect that these two men had on an incredibly important part of medicine which is highlighted in our current preoccupation with our mental health.

Dr Alexander Morison’s bath for treating the insane. Available in his book Cases of Mental Disease, with Practical Observations on the Medical Treatment. 1828. Although no picture of the equipment which Lucett and Dr Tardy used to treat Mr Morgan exists this illustration matches the description given by Tardy to the Medical and Physical Journal in July 1813. The fact that Morison was the medical inspector of Lucett’s private asylum in 1815 provides an ironic linkage as well as demonstrating that Lucett’s way of treating insane patients had been taken up by one eminent and qualified practitioner 15 years later. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Collection. Public Domain Mark).

A picture of Dr William Hallaran’s spinning chair. It was used to treat the insane and similar equipment was suggested for use on George III. Its purpose was to disrupt manic episodes in the hope that this would aid recovery. In practice it induced violent vomiting and evacuations which had little useful therapeutic value. Picture available in Hallaran’s book on Cure for Insanity of 1810. (Wellcome Trust Collection. Public Domain Mark).

George III’s Illnesses and His Doctors: A Study In Early Psychiatry, by Michael Ramscar. 

Available now from Pen & Sword Books.

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