Dr Willis: The Cure to the King’s Madness or his Personal Torturer?

Earlier in the year, I transcribed a number of King George III’s menus from February 1789. In each instance, the title of ‘Dr Willis’s servant’ appeared, prompting me to investigate who this Dr Willis was. With this motivation too, I decided to explore Willis’s life and the treatment he conducted on the king, viewing this in the context of late eighteenth-century medicine. This idea of medicine was largely based on older religious and humoral ideas, shortly before the medical revolutions of the nineteenth-century, and as such appears alien compared to more modern treatment. In exploring Dr Willis, his rise as a physician and his appearance in George’s household will be explored, while his treatment of the king will be evaluated regarding contemporary medical ideas. In this too, the damage done to the king by Dr Willis will be recognised, but only insofar as his actions were in-line with the period’s medical practices.


Born to the minister of Lincoln Cathedral in 1718, Francis Willis was raised to be a religious man. He graduated Oxford University with an MA in 1741 and, having returned to study medicine, gained a medical MD in 1759. Between these years, Willis had married and had turned their home into a mental asylum, and would later go on to help found the Lincoln General Hospital in the 1760s. In 1788, aged seventy, Willis was summoned to court to aid the king, under Lady Harcourt’s recommendation, and began his work in December. Willis was well liked by many at court, such as Fanny Burney, for his manner and wit, but was seen as a quack by other royal physicians. By 17 February 1789, the king was seen to have been cured, and Willis’s job was done. He remained in court for a month after, to keep an eye on the king, and would return to Lincolnshire with a sizeable pension. In later life, Willis would help treat the queen of Portugal for her madness, no doubt aided by his reputation for aiding mad monarchs. Having retired from aiding the royal court in 1801, sending his son to help when the king would relapse, Willis would continue to practice medicine until his death in 1807, aged 89.

Dr Willis is noted here in George’s menu from January 1789 during their stay at Kew

In his service to the royals, Dr Willis was seen as a man of experience for his previous medical work in Lincolnshire, and aided the king as such. In this, the contemporary methods Willis used to treat the king were paired with other methods of psychological aid, meaning that the two parted on good terms despite Willis’s treatment. Though this is surprising considering the treatment George received. The King was tortured and abused in the name of ‘curing’ his madness and, while shocking by modern standards, this treatment was common in treating those deemed ‘mad’. Though simply stating that Willis’s methods were torturous is not enough to understand what the king underwent. In looking into the medical ‘aid’ Willis conducted, compared to medical knowledge in the period, an insight into what George endured is clear.

 

 

A portrait of Dr Willis by John Russel from the same year as the menu above

While by no means malicious, Willis’s treatment of the king was definitely harmful to his overall condition, though it was not uncommon for the period. For treatment, the king would regularly be bound in a chair and gagged, while suffering a wealth of mental and emotional abuse in the form of Willis’s ‘lectures’. In other instances, the king’s legs would be blistered to draw out bad humours, and would even be confined to a straightjacket if he were to remove the bandages from the wounds. George would also even be beaten by one of Willis’s assistants, perhaps even the one mentioned in the royal menus! Though compared to other cases of dealing with madness in the period, the king’s treatment was not out of the ordinary.


In madhouses, where the majority of the mentally ill were treated, conditions were as bleak as what the king endured, with cases such as William Belcher’s offering a harrowing example of treatment for the ‘mad’. As such, George received the same treatment, with Willis even stating that he would draw no distinction in treatment between the king or any other patient. In this then, while the king’s treatment may have been torturous, they were not uncommon in the context or done maliciously, as proven by the positive relationship between George and Willis. Despite this though, the treatment was not wholly effective, perhaps even delaying the king’s recovery from illness and damaging him overall. Furthermore, Willis’s treatment had no long-term effectiveness, with the king’s madness returning the next century and being permanent as of 1810.

“bound and tortured in a straight-waistcoat, fettered, crammed with physic with a bullock’s horn, and knocked down, and declared a lunatic by a Jury that never saw me…”

Belcher’s description of his treatment, Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilisation (London, 2015) p. 139


From this therefore, it is clear to modern audiences that Willis’s treatment was indeed harmful to the king by modern standards, though in his own context Willis acted as one would have with the knowledge they had. Indeed, Brooke’s analogy of Willis being no more cruel than a contemporary dentist removing teeth without anaesthetic speaks volumes about ideas of medicine, and of Willis in the eighteenth century.

Bibliography:

Brooke, John, King George III (Tiptree, 1972)
Burney, Frances, The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, Vol. 2 (London, 1891)
Clarke, John, The Life and Times of George III (London, 1972)
Hibbert, Christopher, George III: A Personal History (London, 1998)
Porter, Roy, “Willis, Francis” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2012)
Scull, Andrew, Madness in Civilisation (London, 2015)
Smith, Leonard, Peters, Timothy, “Introduction to ’Details on the Establishment of Doctor Willis, for the Cure of Lunatics’ (1796)” in History of Psychiatry, Vol 28 (3), (September, 2017)

LS9-226_0060, January 31, 1789


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