Sunday, February 8, 2009

Georgiana's Illness

The Enlightenment may have brought new interest, knowledge, and advancements in medicine but health care in the 18th century was still primitive. Georgiana was one of the many victims of early medicine. Compared to her sister and Bess *rolls eyes* who both had weak dispositions and were continuously ill, Georgiana was pretty healthy and would occasionally suffer from migraines. 1780 is the first record of any complaint she made of eye trouble. She began applying a daily application of water, brandy, and vinegar which did nothing but sting. Her doctor instead prescribed washing it out with milk.

In 1796 Georgiana's eyes were bothering her more, especially during and after her migraines. In July the pain increased and her right eye began swelling...and swelling. In a matter of days it had grown to the size of an apricot. Harriet and Lady Spencer quickly came as well as three of the best eye surgeons England could offer. Anticipating the screams that would soon echo through the house from 'treatment,' the children were sent away to protect them from being traumatised. Loyal Harriet described her sister's screams in a letter saying, "After hearing what I did tonight I can bear anything."

Laudanum (the same drug Georgiana may have suffered an addiction too previously) was used to subside the pain. At one point Georgiana almost died from strangulation when a doctor squeezed her neck in order to flush her eye out with blood. Her eye was also bled which was thought to help greatly. Lady Spencer described the horror of her daughter's altered appearance, "The inflammation has been so great that the eye, eyelids and the adjacent parts were swelled to the size of your hand doubled, and projected forward from the face." It was inevitable that she would loose sight in that eye. Lady Spencer went on to say that an ulcer had formed and burst on top of the cornea and that her swollen eyelids were scarred from the leeches.

When everything was over it was almost as if someone had died. Georgiana stayed in a darkened room to receive well-wishers with a veil covering the lump on her face. She could only detect shapes in that eye and her other eye's vision was now blurry. For weeks any light or motion put her in extreme pain. As a woman who had spent most of her life in the spotlight, Georgiana was frightened beyond belief of everyone's reaction to her facial deformity. The stress had physically aged her and her right eye now drooped, she was no longer the stunning duchess who remained light-hearted and gay in every situation. She let the experience defeat her.

It was a long time before Georgiana recovered from her insecurity and ventured back out in public. She would now arrange her hair in order to cover her right eye as a means of coping with stares.

After reading Foreman's biography, Dr Schraibman went about trying to determine the possible causes of the Duchess' affliction. Based on the evidence Dr Schraibman has inferred that the disease was likely Cavernous Sinus Thrombrosis which I won't even begin to decipher but you can conviniently read his report here.


  1. Doctors just loved leeches in those days, didn't they? What a terrible thing to go through. It sounds like she was very strong and handled it really well. Thank goodness she had her mother and sister to support her too!

  2. Poor Georgiana! Leech treatments were pretty much the 'in' thing- but chocking her?? Oh my goodness! Thanks for this post Heather, I never knew that this affliction lasted that long, or that she had to somehow camouflage her eye when going out.

  3. Oh, I almost felt sick when reading it in the book. So horrible!

  4. Thank you for finally clearing this up for me. I would research swollen eyes in an attempt to figure what was wrong with Georgiana, but was always still really puzzled.

  5. There was actually a doctor who was inspired after reading the biography and researched it himself! I think you can find the link to his article on Amanda Foreman's site.

  6. My God! How horrible.. the poor woman. To imagine being awake while someone is holding you down, choking you, cutting into your eye, and "flushing it with blood!" I don't know how Harriet stayed for that.