Death in modern times tends to be a private affair, whether in hospital, hospice, or in the home. But in the past no such privacy was accorded to royalty, as shown in this painting of the last moments of Albert, the beloved Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. The Prince died in 1861 after a brief illness. He probably had typhoid fever, but other diagnoses have periodically also been suggested, including Crohn’s disease and perhaps even mere dehydration and vascular collapse.1
At least four physicians attended the Prince. They communicated poorly with the public, issuing encouraging reports while their patient was getting worse, hence the shock when he failed to recover. As a result they seem to have been blamed for the outcome and suspected of being incompetent. They are shown in the painting on the left. At least twenty-one persons are present in the room, the family, the doctors, even servants and children. Times have changed and such an assembly would nowadays be unthinkable.
Surprisingly, we do not know the artist who made the painting. He used the pseudonym Le Porte but his real name may have been Oakley. On hearing of the painting’s existence, Queen Victoria was not amused and wanted to buy it and have it destroyed. It survived, and was bought in 1924 by Henry S. Wellcome. It is now in the Wellcome Collection. Experts have identified the people who were present, not only the Queen and doctors but also the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), princesses, dukes, deans, lords, generals, and others important enough to be allowed to witness this solemn moment.2
1. Dunea G. The fatal illness of Prince Albert. Hektoen International, Winter 2012.
2. Schupbach W. The last moments of HRH the Prince Consort. Medical History, 1982,26:312 – in the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.