King Charles II was not an alchemist as such, but he was very interested in science and especially 'chymistry'. He had a laboratory built in the basement of his palace at Westminster and there, with the aid of one or two assistants, he spent time smelting and refining mercury, and indeed he became accomplished in the experimental techniques of the alchemists. Charles had his laboratory staff extract mercury from cinnabar and even distil it. No doubt his aim was to transmute base metals into gold, and thereby solve his financial difficulties. He was at odds with Parliament, who had the power to vote him money, and had to rely on massive financial subsidies from his old friend King Louis XIV of France, for whom he was in effect a client king.
In fact Charles's interest in 'chymistry' had started in 1669 when he had established the office of Chemical Physician to the King, appointing Dr Thomas Williams to it, and providing him with a salary of 20 marks per year and research facilities where he could 'compound and invent medicines', some of which he did with the help of the King himself. Charles's laboratory was even visited by the diarist Samuel Pepys who, on the morning of Friday, 15 January 1669, was walking to Whitehall when he met the King who invited him to come and inspect his new laboratory. This he did and he described it as 'the King's little laboratory under his closet, a pretty place, and there saw a great many Chymicall glasses and things, but understood none of them.'
In 1684, Charles began to exhibit some of the symptoms we now recognize as due to chronic mercury poisoning: he became irritable and easily depressed which was quite out of character for the man who was renowned for his cordiality, his many mistresses, and his love of the good life. Something clearly happened when he was in his laboratory during the last week of January 1685, something that exposed him to a lot of mercury vapour.
On Sunday, 1 February, he spent the evening with three of his courtesans listening to love songs and enjoying a meal with them, but going to bed alone. He awoke the following morning feeling quite ill. The Calendar of State Papers - Domestic reported what happened:
When his Majesty arose yesterday morning, he complained that he was not well and it was perceived by those in his chamber that he faltered somewhat in his speech, notwithstanding which he went into his closet, where he stayed a considerable time. When he came out he called for Follier, his barber, but, before he got to the chair, he was taken with a fit of apoplexy and convulsions which drew his mouth to one side (this was about ten minutes past eight), and he remained in the chair while he had three fits, which lasted nearly an hour and a quarter, during which time he was senseless. His physicians blooded him and he bled 12 oz freely. Then they cupped him on the head, at which he started a little, then they gave him a vomit [an emetic] and a glyster [an enema] and got him to bed by ten. He spoke before one. He called for a China orange and some warm sherry, in which time both the vomit and the glister wrought very kindly, which his physicians say are very good symptoms. He mended from one to ten last night, when they were laying him to rest, his physicians having great hopes that the danger of the fit is over, since that hand they feared was dead, he of his own accord moved and drank with it and complained of soreness, which they say is an extraordinary good symptom. Last night they sat up with him three Privy Councillors, three doctors, three chirurgeons [surgeons], and three apothecaries, and this morning, Dr Lower, one of the physicians that sat up, says that he rested very well, and that naturally, and not forced. This morning he spoke very heartily, so that they hope the danger of this fit is over.
But Charles had been fatally poisoned and the remission of his symptoms that Tuesday was not to last. On the Wednesday, the King took a turn for the worse, suffering more convulsions, and his skin became cold and clammy. He was given a strong laxative, which 'had good operation', and two doses of quinine ('the Jesuits' powder'). On the Thursday he had more convulsions and his life was now clearly in danger, so much so that he was visited by his brother, James, heir to the throne, who brought along a Roman Catholic priest who received him into the Church of Rome and he took the Eucharist. (Charles, who had ruled as a Protestant king throughout his entire reign, was secretly a Catholic.) The following morning, Friday, 6th February, he was propped up in bed to watch the sun rise and even ordered that his eight-day clock be wound up, but by seven o'clock he was having difficulty breathing, by eight-thirty he was clearly failing, and by ten o'clock he was unconscious and obviously dying. Extreme remedies were administered including King's Drops, which was an extract of human skull and had been invented by a Dr Jonathan Goddard (and even prepared in Charles's own laboratory), and Oriental Bezoar Stone, which was made from the stones sometimes found in the stomachs of animals. These were remedies of last resort and clearly useless as antidotes to mercury poisoning, which of course had not been diagnosed as such by his physicians. Charles died just after noon that Friday.
Frederick Holmes, in his book The Sickly Stewarts, has considered the various accounts of Charles's death, including the report of his autopsy, which was carried out the day after he died and observed by a group of physicians. While the original report was lost in a fire at Whitehall in 1697, a copy has survived and is now in the archives of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, USA. Holmes, who was the Edward Hashinger Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and a Fellow both of the American College of Physicians and of the Royal Society of Medicine, says there is only one conclusion that fits all the facts: Charles's death was due to mercury poisoning.
Charles died of an acute insult to his brain, which caused the epileptic seizures he exhibited during his last few days of life. The hand paralysis following the first of these is a common complication of epileptic seizures known as Todd's Palsy. However, it is the autopsy which explains why the 54-year-old king, who up to then was in remarkably good health for a man of his age, was suddenly taken ill and died. The autopsy showed the outer parts of the brain to be engorged with blood while the ventricles of the brain contained much more water than normal. The rest of his organs were sound.
Until the twentieth century, it had been assumed that Charles had suffered a stroke but, says Holmes, this was not the case and the onset of epileptic seizures suggests a serious disease of the brain. It has been suggested that he died of malaria and that this was the cause of the brain disease, but that does not fit with the facts either. Holmes concludes that the King died of mercury poisoning, caused by his exposure to it in his laboratory. This theory was first put forward in the 1950s by the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland in her book The Private Life of Charles II, but it was more seriously argued by two American scientists, M. L. Wolbarsht and D. S. Sax, in 1961 in a paper published in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. They noted that Charles often spent his mornings in his laboratory where he was obsessed with the idea of 'fixing' mercury, in other words combining it with other materials, a process that included distilling large quantities of it. The air of that room must have been heavily polluted with mercury vapour and he would be totally unaware of it because it has no smell. Other great scientists were to suffer some degree of mercury poisoning due to poor laboratory conditions in the centuries to follow, including Michael Faraday (1791-1867). They were exposed to enough vapour to cause the symptoms of mild mercury poisoning although it was not recognized as such.
Breathing mercury vapour causes no respiratory symptoms, unless the dose is very high. The metal is absorbed by the lungs and passes into the blood stream and thence to all parts of the body but the nervous system is particularly affected. The brain is most vulnerable because mercury can move across the blood-brain barrier which is there specifically to protect this vital organ against toxins, and once inside the brain it causes all kinds of symptoms such as lack of energy, unsteady gait, insomnia, etc. In his last year of life, Charles showed some of the signs of mild mercury poisoning, and he became less physically active. We know he was exposed to mercury because the analysis of a strand of his hair showed ten times the expected level. John Lenihan and Hamilton Smith, of the University of Glasgow, used nuclear activation analysis techniques to measure this in 1967. The sample of hair had been obtained through a radio broadcast the previous year, which had prompted a listener in Wales to send them a lock of Charles's hair attached to a card which bore the words:
This lock of hair was taken from the head of King Charles the 2nd, by the mother of Sir John Jennings Kt, and given to Miss Steele of Bromley by Phillip Jennings Esq. nephew to the Admiral Sir John Jennings above said 1705.
The analysis showed the hair to contain 54 ppm of mercury, which is about ten times greater than normal, and while there is no record of when the hair was cut from the King's head, it was probably after he died and it certainly provides evidence that he was exposed to the metal during his final months of life.
While such analysis reveals exposure, it does not prove that he was necessarily putting his life at risk with his experiments. What killed him was acute mercury poisoning. In other words, in the days before he became ill he had done something in his laboratory which filled the air with mercury fumes and these he breathed in, maybe for an hour or more. The other possible explanation of mercury in the King's body could be mercury-based medication taken to treat syphilis, but neither his medical history, nor his autopsy, nor state records, indicated that any of his several mistresses had infected him with venereal disease.
Holmes uses his expert knowledge to show how the King's deathbed symptoms are consistent with mercury poisoning caused by breathing a lot of the vapour. This was the only route by which it could have entered his body without affecting other organs and yet kill him so quickly. When the blood-brain barrier is breached by mercury, the protein-containing part of the blood, the serum, leaks into the crystal-clear fluid surrounding the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid. This is exactly what the post-mortem revealed, all the cerebral ventricles were filled with a kind of serous matter, and the substances of the brain itself were quite soaked with similar fluid. The mercury that found its way into his brain then damaged the brain cells themselves causing the seizures that were observed. These seizures were not due to the other likely causes such as an abscess, tumour, meningitis, or internal bleeding because these would have been noted at autopsy. It was quicksilver that killed the King.
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