Royals garner little sympathy these days. Just ask King George III from the cast of the runaway Broadway hit, “Hamilton.” His “madness” endeared him to audiences as a chattering buffoon, a half-step behind trans-Atlantic realities. 

It’s worth noting during Mental Illness Awareness Month that historians are helping us better understand the challenges that some royals faced, revelations which may help us see these individuals — not to mention our friends, family and strangers — differently and hopefully more empathetically.  

During the last decade, a handful of medical researchers have reassessed King George III’s “madness,” trying to identify its causes and connect them with physical conditions that may have contributed to his suffering.  

You might well appreciate the magnitude of such a task. It’s often difficult for specialists to accurately diagnose mental illness when the subject is alive and present. Imagine trying to do this for someone with whom specialists only have 18th century records drafted by physicians with 18th century sensibilities about mind and body. As a result, the history of King George III’s diagnosis has taken important turns during the past 60 years as diagnostic instruments have been refined.   

According to medical researcher Timothy Peters, a pair of British psychiatrists concluded in 1964 that the king’s dyspeptic actions were the result of a blood disorder known as porphyria. The Royal Society supported the conclusion. Songs and films subsequently amplified that theory. After an exhaustive study of medical records and the process of elimination (ruling out the possibility of porphyria based on the absence of symptoms in nearly 200 of the king’s descendants), Peters identified five periods of acute bipolar episodes in George’s life.  

What is illuminating about Peters’ work is that we learn that mental illness can be a chronic, lifelong condition. In many cases, it cannot simply be eliminated with one-time therapy or short-term medications, but rather may constitute a physical, genetic reality that requires a lifetime of loving, empathetic care and professional attention.   

Peters’ work has gained new resonance during the past year. George’s definitive biographer, Andrew Roberts, echoed Peters’ conclusions in “The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III,” while at the same time brushing aside the porphyria theory.  

As Roberts has eloquently written, “In our more enlightened age, we can sympathize much more closely with the horror of his situation: He was a helpless spectator to his own mental deterioration.”  

At the same time that Roberts’ biography hit the press, author Nancy Goldstone made the claim that one of George’s contemporaries, Louis XVI, demonstrated behaviors consistent with autism spectrum disorder, in “In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters.” While Goldstone’s bold claim met with stiff criticism in reviews, I would tend to concur with her reading of the symptoms based on my own observations with a family member on the spectrum.  

In defense of her assessment, which she also discussed at length with trained professionals who gave a provisional diagnosis, Goldstone meticulously noted of Louis XVI:  

“As a young child, he did not speak or look at anyone in his presence. He had problems with coordination and walked clumsily. He did not play with his brothers but instead ran around chasing cats on the roof of the palace. As an adult, he continued to shun people and retreated often as could to his own rooms ... He uttered shrill sounds and cried when he was upset. Although highly intelligent, he had great difficulty in beginning or engaging in a conversation.” 

Goldstone neglects to mention symptoms she discusses at greater length in the book — how the king generally repeated complex policy ideas suggested by his advisers and “shut down” as the French Revolution unfolded.  

Additional research, it is hoped, will better help us understand the challenges with which those in the past — as well as at present — contend in navigating life successfully. It does the exact opposite of eliciting sympathy for any shortcomings; to the contrary, it brings to light extraordinary achievements realized in spite of inconceivable difficulties.  

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses on world history.