The news that a Dutch court has legalised the drugging and murder of elderly patients will no doubt appal many, even some of those in the pro-euthanasia camp.
Now seems as good a time as any to look back at the most high-profile euthanasia victim to date, a man who never consented to be killed nor brought up the subject; in short, he was undeniably murdered. And yet, the true circumstances of his death – his euthanasia murder – remained secret for 50 years; and despite the truth coming out in the 1980s, it’s still not very well known.
I am talking about the British Empire’s King George V (1865-1936), who reigned from 1910 until his death.
The following is one of the 1986 news reports that broke the story:
(Note that I’m doing this from my phone, which is a lot harder than on my laptop, so I didn’t bother putting the article in quote block.)
1936 SECRET IS OUT: DOCTOR SPED GEORGE V’S DEATH
By Joseph Lelyveld, Special To the New York Times
As he lay comatose on his deathbed in 1936, King George V was injected with fatal doses of morphine and cocaine to assure him a painless death in time, according to his physician’s notes, for the announcement to be carried ”in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate evening journals.”
The fact that the death of a reigning monarch had been medically hastened remained a secret for half a century until the publication today of the notes made at the time by Lord Dawson, the royal physician who recorded that he administered the two injections at about 11 o’clock on the night of Jan. 20, 1936. That was scarcely an hour and a half after Lord Dawson had written a classically brief medical bulletin that declared, ”The King’s life is moving peacefully toward its close.”
That ”close” came in less than an hour after the injections. Lord Dawson, according to his notes, had already taken the precaution of phoning his wife in London to ask that she ”advise The Times to hold back publication.”
In Windsor Castle Archives
”A Peaceful Ending at Midnight,” said the headline the next morning in the newspaper that was deemed to be the most appropriate vehicle for major announcements to the nation.
The Dawson notes, now preserved in the archives of Windsor Castle, were first examined by the physician’s biographer, Francis Watson, when he prepared a volume that appeared in 1950, five years after Lord Dawson’s death. At the request of the physician’s widow, the biographer said today, he simply omitted any reference to the euthanasia that had taken place at Sandringham Castle.
It was Mr. Watson, now 79 years old, who filled in the omission in an article in a journal called History Today that went on sale here this morning. ”Perhaps I should have included it in the book at the time,” he said. ”Lady Dawson did not want it in the book and I quite readily agreed. I didn’t think it appropriate.” Queen’s Reaction Not Known
The reaction of Queen Elizabeth II, the granddaughter of Lord Dawson’s patient, could not be learned. ”It happened a long time ago,” the spokesman at Buckingham Palace told callers, ”and all those concerned are now dead.”THE MORNING: Make sense of the day’s news and ideas. David Leonhardt and Times journalists guide you through what’s happening — and why it matters.Sign Up
Lord Dawson’s notes assert that he had been told by Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales – the playboy son who was to become Edward VIII and, less than a year later, would abdicate and become the Duke of Windsor – that they did not want the King’s life needlessly prolonged if his illness was clearly fatal. There is no indication that the King himself had been consulted.
It is not clear from the notes how explicit Lord Dawson was in the exchange he reported with the Queen and Prince about the method of ending the King’s life, or whether this conversation had been initiated by the family or the physician. But there is circumstantial evidence, in a speech Lord Dawson delivered in the House of Lords in a debate on euthanasia 10 months later, to suggest that the discussion could have been prompted by the doctor. ‘Mission of Mercy’
The royal physician spoke against a bill that would have legalized the practice but he did so without condemning euthanasia. Instead, describing it as a ”mission of mercy,” he argued it was a matter best left to the conscience of individual physicians rather than official regulators.
”One should make the act of dying more gentle and more peaceful even if it does involve curtailment of the length of life,” he told his fellow peers. ”That has become increasingly the custom. This may be taken as something accepted.”
Calling for a ”gentle growth of euthanasia,” rather than a removal of all restraints by legislation, Lord Dawson went on to say, ”If we cannot cure for heaven’s sake let us do our best to lighten the pain.” Biographer Is ‘Appalled’
Similar reasoning was reflected in the notes he made after the King’s death. ”It was evident,” the physician said, ”that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and the serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene.”
If Lord Dawson ever imagined that future and more enlightened generations would hail his intervention, he would have been severely disappointed by the reaction here today to Mr. Watson’s disclosures.
”In my opinion the King was murdered by Dawson,” said Kenneth Rose, a biographer of George V, who said he was ”appalled” by the news. Sir Douglas Black, a past president of the Royal College of Physicians, said Lord Dawson appeared to have committed an ”evil” act for the sake of a ”marginal” good – the announcement of the King’s death in The Times.
Harold Brooks-Baker, the publisher of Burke’s Peerage, said it was impossible to imagine Queen Mary condoning the ending of her husband’s life. ”Religion and duty ruled her life,” he said. ”She did not marry for love but for duty and went to church several times a week. Ordinary pleasures played no part in her life as she did not believe in the easing of life, even in death.”
The King, who was 71, had been in failing health for some months with a chronic bronchial complaint, but his final illness was brief. It was only four days before his death that the Queen sent for Lord Dawson. On the morning of his last day, he managed a 10-minute meeting with his privy counselors. The King’s Last Words
After his death, it was reported that his last words had come in the form of a question to his private secretary. ”How is the Empire?” he was said to have asked. But Lord Dawson’s notes report a subsequent exclamation, which came after dinner when he was injected with a small dose of morphine to enable him to sleep more easily. ”God damn you,” the King said, according to the notes, as he fell asleep.
Later that evening, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, prayed at the bedside of the unconscious King. Once the Archbishop retired, Lord Dawson prepared the fatal injections, consisting of three-quarters of a gram of morphine and one gram of cocaine. Ten months later, the Archbishop followed Lord Dawson as a speaker in the euthanasia debate in the House of Lords, praising the speech the royal physician had just given.
Euthanasia still has not been legalized in Britain. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society said today that it had not yet decided what, if anything, it wanted to say about the death of King George V 50 years ago.