Historical letters from King George III may reflect his state of mental health

Historical letters from King George III may reflect his state of mental health

A computational language analysis of letters written by King George III could shed light on his mental illness.

George, king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 to 1820, is known to have suffered from recurrent episodes of poor physical and mental health throughout his reign. The precise diagnosis behind his psychiatric episodes and cognitive impairment has been the subject of much speculation.

In their recently published study, Vassiliki Rentoumi and colleagues from the University of London theorized that alterations in the language of political letters written by the monarch could help reveal his state of mental health. They used computational language and machine learning techniques to analyze and categorize his written correspondence over three distinct periods of his life. To account for the possibility that language variations may not be the result of mental illness but of other external factors, they also examined texts written during stressful times of political uncertainty and during different seasons.

The researchers found that the king’s letters from periods of mental illness were significantly different from those written in periods of mental stability. They had a reduced vocabulary, with fewer distinct words, and tended to be more repetitive and predictable. Political uncertainty and seasonality had no effect on his language.

These results may provide insight into the clinical diagnosis of George’s recurrent mental illness. The researchers suggest that in the modern classification of mental illness, acute mania may be the most appropriate diagnosis based on the available behavioral data. However, additional language analysis of acute mania patients in the clinic and of historical texts would be needed to confirm.

Citation: Rentoumi V, Peters T, Conlin J, Garrard P (2017) The acute mania of King George III: A computational linguistic analysis. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0171626. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171626

Image Credit: Les Haines, Flickr



Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at tgregory@plos.org and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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