A Moment of Science

The Royal Plague

Being King isn't all it's cracked up to be. Learn about the "royal disease" that haunts the descendants of Queen Victoria.

Bloody finger.

Photo: Ollie Crafoord (Flickr)

Today, clotting factors and other medications can effectively control hemophilia.

It’s good to be king, as the saying goes. But sometimes having a royal lineage isn’t so great.  Take the male descendants of Queen Victoria, who was the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom during most of the 19th century.

Victoria’s son, Leopold, died is his thirties when he slipped, fell, and bled to death. Her grandson, Friedrich, met his end at age two, also bleeding to death.  Grandsons Leopold and Maurice made it to ages 32 and 23, respectively, before they too, bled out.

The “Royal Disease”

Now, given all the bleeding, you might assume that Victoria’s male line suffered from hemophilia.  And you’d be right.

But it wasn’t until 2009 that scientists confirmed that what had been known as “Royal disease” was, in fact hemophilia–a genetic mutation that disables the ability of blood to clot.  Absent clotting, even a trivial cut or scratch can turn deadly if too much blood is lost.

The Plague Hits Russia

So how did scientists confirm that it was hemophilia that plagued the royals?  By analyzing the DNA of Victoria’s great grandson, Prince Alexei Romanov.  He was murdered along with his entire family during the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1918.

Using bone fragments, the scientists identified genetic markers for hemophilia B. Prince Alexei shared the same troublesome DNA as other male members of Queen Victoria’s exclusive gene pool. So the finding confirmed that all the royals who bled to death did so because of hemophilia.

Today, clotting factors and other medications can effectively control hemophilia.  But during the 19th century, when no remedy was available, bleeding without end usually meant that you’d reached the end–royalty or not.

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