July 10, 1998

Queen Anne and King Charles I

KU doctor uncovers what really killed Britain's House of Stuart

By Todd Cohen

It was elementary to Dr. Holmes. What suddenly killed Britain's King Charles II in 1685 was not apoplexy as his contemporaries surmised. It was acute mercury poisoning, contracted in an unventilated palace laboratory where the king played with chemicals.

And what did in Queen Anne in 1714 was her case of lupus, not gout as was thought, says Dr. Frederick Holmes, a physician at KU Medical Center. A big clue was that out of her 17 pregnancies, only three babies were born alive. Those three died within 10 years, and with them the House of Stuart that had ruled Britain for a century.

Had modern medicine been available, history would be quite different, Holmes says, noting that lupus is very treatable today.

"Suppose half of those pregnancies had lived," he muses. "She could have become a Victoria and her descendants would still be on the throne today."

It is those twists of fate, and the benefit of 200 years of medical hindsight, that has entertained Holmes the past few years. The Edward Hashinger distinguished professor of medicine has been training his medical knowledge on the relatively poor health of the Stuarts to diagnose what really ailed the sickly monarchs.

"There are a lot of `what ifs,' which is part of the fun of history." Holmes said. His work studying medical records and other writings from the period became his thesis for his master's degree in European history, which he received in May. It also may be fodder for a book he hopes to publish.

"I wanted to study history, not history of medicine. I wanted to learn how historians write, think and look at sources," Holmes says. "But it was always convenient to say [to the professor] `Can I write on a medical topic?'"

Few physicians look at historical figures, but Holmes soon discovered that he could conclude, with a high degree of certainty, what really killed the Stuarts. Reports from their attending physicians and vividly detailed accounts by ambassadors who observed the royal family provided a mountain of clues.

Thanks to years of medical advancement, Holmes could decipher what doctors then -- and historians today -- could not. Holmes was hooked.

"Most of these people were autopsied. Physicians can make conclusions that a historian can't," Holmes says.

He delved into the stacks at KU's Watson, Spencer, Government Documents and Science libraries on the Lawrence campus and the Clendening History of Medicine Library at KUMC. There he uncovered amazing resources, from a diary by Queen Anne's gynecologist to an analysis from King James I's physician.

"It was so good you could put it on the chart in a hospital today," Holmes said.

His findings included the following:

After Queen Anne died, a ruling council invited George I of Hanover, a great-grandson of James I, to take the throne, rejecting other Stuarts with a more direct lineage to the queen. The House of Stuart was over, and the last of the Stuarts died in the 19th century.

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Contact Oread editor Todd Cohen at (785) 864-8858 or oread@ku.edu.