The fatal illness of Prince Albert

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 1842
Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, husband and prince consort of Queen Victoria, died on December 14, 1861, leaving his adoring wife in such a state of dejection that she avoided public appearances for years and wore black for the rest of her life. Statues erected in various cities of the sprawling British empire often bore the inscription Alfred the Good, and good indeed he was, even though the eponym never caught on. He had worked hard and achieved significant reforms in many areas of public life, but as a foreigner was unpopular in England. The doctors declared he had died of typhoid fever, an illness that may have also killed two of his cousins.

Yet for several years the prince had been unwell. Lytton Strachey, in his biography of Queen Victoria, contrasts his sallow tired-looking appearance with that of his very healthy wife, stout with the plumpness of a vigorous matron exuding eager vitality. Albert presented a painful contrast, as his “body in its stoop and its loose fleshiness betrayed the sedentary laborer, and whose head was quite bald on top.” Long suffering from insomnia, he reportedly caught cold while inspecting the new buildings for the military academy, attacked by “rheumatism” and feeling unwell, then catching a “fatal chill.” He took to his bed, became progressively weaker, and grew increasingly worse. Despite the persistent reassurance by the doctors attending on him, he continued to deteriorate, seemed better for a little time in the morning of December 14, but relapsed and died that night.

The official cause of death given out was typhoid fever. The queen did not allow an autopsy performed on her beloved husband. But this was in the days before intravenous fluids could be given to ill patients, and descriptions of the prince’s sunken eyes and loose skin suggest he had become dehydrated and may have died of vascular collapse. But it was also reported that the prince had been unwell for several years and had suffered from digestive symptoms suggestive of a more chronic illness. Even renal failure and cancer has been mentioned, and in the absence of an autopsy and more detailed tests most presumptive diagnoses remain speculative. Nevertheless, in 2011 Dr. Helen Rappaport, after spending three years studying the archival records of the time, including Albert and Victoria’s letters, proposed that the prince had died from Crohn’s disease. Also known as regional enteritis, this disease of the small intestine may cause abdominal pains and cramps, diarrhea, fever, weight loss, so–called rheumatic symptoms, and a variety of serious complications such as bowel fistulas, obstruction, perforation, and abscesses, all potentially fatal. But as with many other illustrious figures living in the past, the exact cause of the prince’s death may never be known.

 


George Dunea, MD, Editor-in-Chief