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Computer analysis of the correspondence of King George III to throw new light on his madness?

By gretchen | April 25, 2013

King George III life and reign were longer than those of any previous monarch. This reign covered the period of Great Britain defeating France in the Seven Years War and becoming the dominant European power in North America and India; the loss of Britain’s colonies in America in the American Revolutionary War; and concluded in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Throughout his reign George III suffered from recurrent episodes of mental illness, and in the later part of his life mental deterioration was to become a more permanent feature. The story of his struggle with mental illness was made into a successful 1994 film the Madness of King George. This film depicts the relatively primitive medical practices of the time and the effort that his doctors made in understanding the human body. Modern medicine has suggested that the symptoms were the result of metabolic blood disorder known as porphyria and chemical analysis of his hair have revealed that his problems were compounded by arsenic poisoning. This arsenic poisoning may have been as a result of the medicines prescribed to treat his mental illness being contaminated with arsenic.

Scientists at St Georges, University of London, in collaboration with historians in collaboration with historians from Universities of Birmingham and Southampton, are seeking new insights into the progressive nature of his mental illness by computer analysis of his letters. This analysis is expected to shed new light on the time, course and duration of King George’s deteriorating mental symptoms.  The research team is using detailed texts between the King and the prime ministers of the time; these texts vary in length from just a few lines to much longer. Letters from, before and after his known periods of illness and derangement will be compared. The sophisticated software used in this computational linguistics approach will identify textual abnormalities that are seen in patients with mental illness. These include measures of organisation and coherence in the use of language that emerge from statistical modelling of words and sentence meaning. The work was featured in the BBC Series “Fit to Rule”which deals with the impact of medical conditions on the history of Royal Households through the ages.

To enable the computers to carry out work effectively the text must be structured in a particular way for the software to work properly. Max was tasked with scanning many hundreds of letters from books published in the 18th Century and then carrying out optical character recognition of the text.

Read full post here.(Originally posted April 16, 2013)