Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Was Napoleon Poisoned?

I've always found this story interesting and my recollection was that the preponderance of evidence indicated that he had been poisoned. But a new analysis of clippings of his hair done by Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics has evidence that points in the other direction:

"They conducted a detailed analysis of hairs taken from Napoleon’s head at four times in his life — as a boy in Corsica, during his exile on the island of Elba, the day he died on St. Helena, at age 51, and the day afterward — and discovered that the arsenic levels underwent no significant rises.

Casting a wide net, the scientists also studied hairs from his son, Napoleon II, and his wife, Empress Josephine. Here, too, they found that the arsenic levels were similar and uniformly high.

The big surprise was that the old levels were roughly 100 times the readings that the scientists obtained for comparison from the hairs of living people.
“The concentrations of arsenic in the hair taken from Napoleon after his death were much higher,” the scientists wrote. But the levels were “quite comparable with that found not only in the hair of the emperor in other periods of his life, but also in those of his son and first wife.”

The results, they added, “undoubtedly reveal a chronic exposure that we believe can be simply attributed to environmental factors, unfortunately no longer easily identifiable, or habits involving food and therapeutics.”

So he had high levels of arsenic in his system, but so did everyone else. All sorts of things we know are toxic now (like mercury !) were used as medicines or in industrial processes back then.

I'll have to qualify my opening sentence to say that I've never been that interested in Napoleon as an individual, but find the era of the Napoleonic Wars fascinating. Read too many C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell novels, I guess.


Mike Spies said...

At one time arsenic was used to treat syphilis. Perhaps Napoleon was treated using this method?

Or not.

Andrew Campbell said...

There is some speculation that, in fact, arsenic poisoning was relatively common, but only former emperors have merited the kind of forensic investigation. The theory I heard a long time ago was that arsenic was actually a critical part in the coloring of green wall-paper -- and that once exposed to damp air, it gives off a highly poisonous compound. If I remember correctly, other members of his St. Elba household did fall ill during his stay there -- but there is some debate over whether Napoleon could have been exposed to enough arsenic this way to kill him. Having said that, if he did already have a stomach ulcer, exposure to arsenic would certainly have accelerated his final demise.