Tell Us What You Think. Please Take Our
Customer Survey.

Historical Essays and Reviews


[ Home > International Historic Films Complete Online Catalog > Historical Essays/Reviews > Historical Essays by Blaine Taylor > * Napoleon’s Medical Case File ]


* Napoleon’s Medical Case File - www.ihfhilm.com

Napoleon’s Medical Case File
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: The Emperor (right) has a foot wound dressed by the Surgeon of his Imperial Guard---Dr. Baron Jean Larrey---at the Apr. 25, 1809 Battle of Ratisbon, Austria in this painting by C. Gautherot. (Versailles.)


The Napoleonic Wars lasted from the appearance of young Gen. Napolione Buonaparti as commander of the Army of Italy in 1795 until his final defeat as the Emperor Napoleon I at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium on June 18, 1815---two decades of almost constant warfare. At the center of these bloody, seemingly incessant struggles stands the short, paunchy, but enigmatic, figure of His Imperial Majesty himself.

Certainly, the epic political and military career of Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most extraordinary in all recorded history. Thousands of books about him are in print, and he’s been portrayed on the movie screen by such varied stars as Charles Boyer, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, and many, many others. Numerous cities and towns around the world are named after him.

His life and death were full of irony. He was born on the Mediterranean Island of Corsica (then occupied by Royalist France) on Aug. 15, 1769, and died 51 years later on another island, St. Helena, in exile under British bayonets. The man who faced sudden, violent death on 60 battlefields---and fought more battles than both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar combined---finally died in bed.

He was a man of many names: born with the Italian name of Napolione Buonaparti, he later changed it to the more French-sounding Napoleon Bonaparte, and, finally, as Emperor of the French, styled himself Napoleon I. On St. Helena, his British jailer---Sir Hudson Lowe---referred to him merely as Gen. Bonaparte.

Both his rise to power and fall therefrom were meteoric and total. An artillery officer by training at a French military academy, by 28 he was General of the French Army of Italy---and Emperor of the French by 34, when he crowned himself at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Although he founded a family dynasty, he was a cynical realist about the true nature of monarchies: “A crown is only a hat that lets in the rain,” he said. “A throne is merely a chair covered with cloth.” A hyperactive man despite the fat of his later years, Napoleon characteristically took as his emblem an industrious golden bee, rather than the eagles then in vogue with so many European royal houses, such as those of Prussia, Russia, and Austria.

One of the world’s most famous soldiers, he spent much of his life on horseback---garbed in his famed cocked hat and a simple, gray overcoat. His enemies called him “the 100,000 man,” because that is how they viewed the worth of his mere presence opposing them on any battlefield, while his soldiers affectionately hailed him as “the Little Corporal” or---because of the short hairstyle he wore after 1800---“le tondu,” literally “the shorn one.”

Medically---as we shall see---he boasted an incredibly strong bodily constitution until roughly the year 1808. Midway into his career, when he began a steady physical deterioration that helped bring him down in 1815. It will be demonstrated that illness played a significant part in his handling of the Battles of Borodino in Russia in 1812 (which he won), of the German campaigns of 1813 and of Waterloo in 1815 (which he lost.) Finally, his illness and death on St. Helena will be explored, especially the possibility that he may have been dealt an early death by poisoning at the hands of his enemies.

Those wishing a more detailed inquiry into this last aspect should consult Gen. Frank Richardson’s 1974 book, Napoleon’s Death: An Inquest, published in London.

The Physical Napoleon

During the early 1800s---when Bonaparte was dictator of France, but not yet emperor---his private secretary, Meneval, penned this illuminating word portrait of his master: “Napoleon was of average height (about 5’6”), and well built. His head was big, and the skull largely developed. His neck was short, and his shoulders broad. The size of his chest bespoke a robust constitution; less robust, however, than his mind. His legs were well shaped, his foot was small and well formed. His hand---and he was rather proud of it---was delicate and plump, with tapering fingers. His forehead was high and broad, his eyes gray, penetrating and wonderfully mobile; his nose was straight and well shaped. His teeth were fairly good, the mouth perfectly modeled, the upper lip slightly drawn down toward the corner of the mouth, and the chin slightly prominent. His skin was smooth and his complexion pale, but of a pallor which denoted a good circulation of the blood.

His very fine chestnut hair---which, until the time of the expedition to Egypt---he had worn long, cut square and covering his ears, was clipped short. The hair was thin on the upper part of the head, and left bare his forehead…The shape of his face and the ensemble of his features were remarkably regular

“When excited by any violent passion, his face assumed an even more terrible expression. A sort of rotary movement visibly produced itself on his forehead and between his eyebrows; his eyes flashed fire; his nostrils dilated, swollen with the inner storm. But these transient movements---whatever their cause may have been---in no way brought disorder to his mind. He seemed to be able to control at will these explosions, which---by the way, as time went on---became less and less frequent. His head remained cool. The blood never went to it, flowing back to the heart. In ordinary life, his expression was calm, meditative, and gently grave. When in a good humor---or when anxious to please---his expression was sweet and caressing, and his face was lighted up by a most beautiful smile. Amongst familiars, his laugh was loud and mocking…

“He lived in a very homely manner…He used to spend hours which were not taken up by work, exercise, or shooting with Josephine. He used to lunch alone, and during this repast---which was a relaxation for him---he received the persons with whom he liked to converse on science, art, and literature. He dined with his family, and after dinner would look in at his Cabinet, and then--- unless kept there by some work---would return to the drawing room and play chess.

“When bedtime came, Madame Bonaparte followed him to his room. Napoleon wasted very little time in preparing for the night, and used to say that he got to bed with pleasure…However, this bed into which he threw himself with delight---being often crushed with fatigue---was quitted more than once during the course of the night. He used to get up---after an hour’s sleep---as wide awake and as clear in his head as if he had slept quietly the whole night…”

English historian Alfred Cobban described him thus: “Short, but thin and muscular, he had good looks. He had tremendous energy and a powerful and disciplined memory. He could work continuously for long periods, with only snatches of sleep. In order not to disturb his habits---says his police official---he had taken care not to form any…”

Like Adolf Hitler, Napoleon believed in dressing in simple uniforms, so as to stand out from all his gaudily bedecked marshals and generals. When on his way to meet the Russian Tsar Alexander I at Tilsit in 1807, “Napoleon was clad in the uniform of the Old Guard with the scarlet ribbon of the Legion of Honor across his shoulder and the historic little tri-corned hat on his head…”

Courage in Battle and Two Known Wounds

By all accounts, Napoleon was a physically courageous person always at the head of his troops in the thick of the combat. During his Egyptian campaign of 1797-98, he insisted on visiting and even touching numbers of his sick soldiers who’d caught the much dreaded (then and now!) Bubonic plague.

In 1809---outside Vienna---engaged with the Austrian Army, the fighting was so fierce that the emperor’s Young Guard threatened to lay down their weapons unless he left the scene of the combat, and at Borodino three years later, he calmly directed the battle while Russian cannon balls rolled in the grass all around him (superbly depicted in the Soviet film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, incidentally.)

So far as is known, Napoleon was wounded in battle at least twice. During the British siege of the French port of Toulon in 1793---where Maj. Bonaparte first distinguished himself in action---he was wounded slightly in the thigh, while his right heel was grazed by an Austrian bullet at the attack on Ratisbon on Apr. 23, 1809.

Assassination Attempts

He had no fear of either death in battle or assassination, for---as he stated on Sept. 20, 1817, while in exile---“I am too much of a fatalist to take any precautions against assassination”

There were two known attempts on his life. In December 1800, French Royalists tried to blow up his carriage while he was on his way to an opera, and several other conspiracies against him were uncovered over the years by the French secret police. Once—while he was in Germany during the campaign to defeat Prussia in 1806---Napoleon was confronted by a young male student. When the would-be assassin refused to repent, the emperor had him executed.

Prudent!

Although courageous, Napoleon wasn’t foolhardy, however. At Borodino in 1812, he foresaw the possibility that his Grand Army might be destroyed by the Russians, and consequently would not allow his personal Imperial Guard to enter the battle at a crucial moment. (He did, though, commit the Guard at Waterloo, where it was routed.)

He also dreaded being captured as a prisoner-of-war and---according to German Jewish biographer Emil Ludwig Cohn---carried a small bag around his neck that contained poison. At Waterloo---after he heard that Prussian Marshal Blucher threatened to hang him if he was caught---Napoleon unsuccessfully sought death in battle.

Napoleon was as ruthless as he was brave, and thought nothing of expending his soldiers’ lives in a costly frontal attack on an enemy position if it might bring him victory, as when he sent his Polish Lancers to assault the Spanish lines at Somosierra.

During the Egyptian campaign on March 7, 1799, he ordered 5,000 prisoners massacred after the siege of Jaffa, claiming they’d broken their vow not to fight him again, given after an earlier operation.

Sex Life
Everything about Napoleon seemed to border on extremes. Such was his sex life. Historians disagree as to how many lovers he took over the course of his lifetime, but numbers as high as 50 women are mentioned, including prostitutes, princesses, countesses, and even the wives of his fellow officers-in-exile at St. Helena! After first wife Josephine was unable to provide him with an heir to his throne, Napoleon divorced her and married Marie Louise, daughter of his old enemy, Kaiser Franz I of Austria. (Their son---born in 1811---died prematurely of tuberculosis in 1832, 11 years after his famous father.) In addition, Napoleon is believed to have fathered two illegitimate sons (who went on to make their marks in the French civil service under the Second Empire of Napoleon’s nephew and successor, Napoleon III), and a daughter, the latter during the St. Helena period.

His magnetism seemed to mesmerize women: “Napoleon’s effect on the majority of women bore absolutely no relation to his physical or mental charms. The mere presence of the emperor---who had already conquered most of Europe, and seemed about to yoke the rest---was sufficient in itself: he hypnotized and thrilled them with his name alone. The Countess Pocoka---who met him on his visit to Warsaw---admitted, “I was as it were, stupefied…It seemed to me as if there were a halo around his head.”

For his part, Napoleon aggressively returned the ladies’ attentions, as authoress Margaret Laing pointed out in her study of Josephine and the emperor: “Hamelin…remembers how Napoleon would burst in---and without a word to him---rush over to his wife. He plied her with bold and hearty caresses that sent me to the window to pretend to inspect the weather…”

Daily Regime

His working and eating regimes were notoriously irregular. He had the capacity for working hard all day while not on a campaign, sleeping for a few minutes or hours, and returning to work late at night. He never overate, and believed in fresh air, water, and cleanliness.

As author Emil Ludwig Cohn wrote, “With a body thus steeled, he can drive without stopping from Tilsit to Dreden---nearly 500 miles---and be quite fresh at the journey’s end…After long rides and marches through Poland, he reaches Warsaw at midnight and receives the authorities at seven next morning…”

He was also known to sleep in the midst of a battle, as at Wagram in 1809.

Devotion of and to his Troops

Despite his willingness to commit them to battle wholesale, Napoleon’s devotion to his troops---and they to him in return---was legendary.

“Generals would risk their armies and their careers to gain a simple compliment from him. When he said, ‘You have not done badly,’ many preferred this indirect tribute to a castle in Spain or a flattering title. Horribly mangled soldiers would---in one last torturous effort---scream ‘Long live the Emperor!’ just before they died…The love he had from his troops was the most important factor of all.”

Legend

Indeed, many of his old soldiers refused to the end of their own lives to believe the news of his death, while others---living in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Mobile, and New Orleans---staged elaborate funerals in his honor months after he’d died. In life, he called them, “my children.”

Weight and Sleep

Although he was underweight during the early years of his career (leading several wags to call him “Puss-in-Boots” because of his awkward appearance), he was seldom ill until about 1808. One such occasion occurred, however, in 1788, “possibly due to an inadequate diet.”

In his excellent biography, Napoleon, author Felix Markham stated, “The legend that Napoleon had an abnormally slow pulse, that he could do without sleep, may be dismissed. On the contrary, Marmont, his aide, says that he needed a lot of sleep, but could defer it at will. In the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, he was suffering from the after effects of a skin disease, caught from an infection during the siege of Toulon. He was cured of this…by the expert treatment of Corvisart, and began to put on weight, despite vigorous riding and his abstemious habits of eating. The truth seems to be that Napoleon’s powers of work were due to a highly-strung nervous vitality and willpower rather than to any exceptional physique.

Nervous System

“In the end, this expenditure of nervous energy had to be paid for in a premature aging. Even before 1805, there were two occasions when he suffered a nervous crisis, due to overstrain which stimulated epilepsy. Chaptal noted that, ‘After his return from Moscow, those who saw him noticed a great change in his physical and mental constitution. It was difficult to recognize in this aging and corpulent man---often drowsy---the slim, taut, energetic figure of the First Consul.”

“On the day of the Battle of Borodino, he was suffering from a violent cold and bladder trouble. After the Battle of Dresden, he was immobilized by an upset stomach; throughout the Waterloo campaign, he had not the stamina to keep things moving at his accustomed speed. Gen. Thiebault saw him at the Tuileries just before he left for the Waterloo campaign. ‘I never took my eyes from Napoleon, and the more I studied him as he had been in the days of his strength and greatness…everything about him seemed to have lost its nature and to be broken up: the ordinary pallor of his skin was replaced by a strongly pronounced greenish tinge which struck me.’”

Overtaxed

The key to understanding the emperor’s gradual physical decline, was simply that he---like Benito Mussolini later--- demanded too much of himself, and consequently broke down under the strain at crucial points in history. He himself recognized this in 1805, after his greatest victory, at Austerlitz: “One has a certain time for war. I have another six years in me, then I shall have to stop.”

As his biographers have correctly pointed out, this timetable took him to 1811---the year before he embarked upon his greatest military adventure, the ill-fated invasion of Tsarist Russia, a war that only he wanted.

Reason and Rage

What happened to Napoleon’s reason? “As one Minister of the Empire remarked: ‘It is strange that though Napoleon’s common sense amounted to genius, he never could see where the possible left off,’ the exact opposite, say, of Imperial Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, who always did.

As he grew in power, Napoleon also became susceptible to irrational rages, much as Hitler did after his own Russian disaster in 1941. As the late English author David Chandler recorded, “He would not hesitate to use a riding crop on the heads and shoulders of officers and servants, and at least once he kicked a Minister in the crotch…He seized poor Marshal Berthier by the throat and hammered his head against a stone wall until the paroxysm subsided…”

At the Battle of Somosierra in Spain on Nov. 30, 1808, he impatiently insisted on an unsupported cavalry attack which led to fearful losses,” petulantly asserting, “Take that for me!”

Illness

At Borodino in 1812, the emperor had an attack of cystitis. “It was that inflammation of the bladder and urinary tract that had put him out of action.” Following the Russian disaster, Napoleon fought a brilliant series of delaying battles in the German campaign of 1813, trying desperately to prevent the combined Allied armies from invading France itself. In August---after the Battle of Dresden and a week of marching---he became “exhausted and ill,” and failed adequately to pursue the temporarily defeated Allied forces. This was two months before the famous “Battle of the Nations” at Leipzig, where he was resoundingly defeated himself, the first time ever in an open battle.

The following spring, the Allies poured into France, pushing Napoleon back at every turn, and finally occupying Paris. In April 1814, the emperor’s marshals revolted in a group, forcing him to abdicate the throne. The victorious Allies sent him into his first exile on the Island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of France.

Elban Exile

A French staff officer described him at this time: “During his stay on Elba, Napoleon’s stoutness had increased rapidly. His head had become enlarged and more deeply set between his shoulders. His pot belly was unusually pronounced for a man of 45…His stoutness, his dull, white complexion, his heavy walk made him appear very different from the Gen. Bonaparte I had seen at the start of my career during the campaign of 1800 in Italy, when he was so alarmingly thin that no soldier in his army could understand how---with so frail a body and looking as ill as he did---he could stand such fatigue.”

As author Christopher Hibbert noted, “The life at Elba had not increased his power of continuous work. He had long had some kidney trouble, hemorrhoids now annoyed him…As he himself said of Marshal Ney, he was not the same man.”

The 100 Days

This was, then, Napoleon on the very eve of his most daring episode. Tiring of his exile at Elba---and encouraged by renewed unrest in France---the emperor secretly landed with a few loyal troops near Cannes on the French Riviera, thus beginning a triumphal return to Paris, and the final “100 Days” of his power. Waterloo ended it all.

Waterloo

Historians have debated the reasons for the emperor’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 for nearly two centuries. The most basic is that he faced a combined English Army under the Duke of Wellington and Prussian forces commanded by Marshal Prince Blucher that far outnumbered his own.

Even if he had won, however, Napoleon would eventually have faced the rest of the same formidable coalition that had defeated him in 1814---and which weren’t even present at Waterloo: the Russians and Austrians.

Ultimate defeat seemed certain, even if he---ever the optimist!---was prepared to raise yet another army after Waterloo! Most historians agree that if Blucher’s Prussians (whom Napoleon thought had already been defeated) had not arrived in the evening of the battle to reinforce the hard-pressed British, the emperor---and not Wellington---would’ve won the day.

That was also the stated view of a later German---Kaiser Wilhelm II---namely, that it was Blucher who’d won the battle, and not Lord Wellington. In more recent days, Prof. Peter Hofschroer has taken up this viewpoint in his controversial book, Waterloo: The German Victory. The debate continues on.

Health the Major Factor?

They disagree, however, over the role that his health played that day and also in the previous Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. David Howarth, for example, did not, stating, “The truth is, that it was his activity---not his lethargy---which was as much the cause of his fall as of his rise, for it led him to believe that in his person he could combine the duties of commander-in-chief and chief of staff…”---not to mention Head of State!

Nevertheless, as a French officer who was there reported, “It was noticeable during this campaign that he remained on horseback much less than in the past. When he dismounted—either to study maps, or else to send messages and receive reports---members of his staff would set before him a small deal table and a rough chair made of the same wood, and on this he would remain seated for long periods of time…”

Mr. Howarth took the opposite view: “He was only 45, three months younger than Wellington, but during the past three years, he had suddenly grown fat, and that has been read as a symptom of a pituitary disorder which might have blurred the sharpness of his brain. This might’ve caused the lack of decision and clarity during his last campaign, and the fits of drowsiness and lethargy that are said to have overcome him…In the night after Ligny, the emperor had an acute attack of piles. He had been on horseback most of the day…Napoleon always took care to hide his own ailments from his troops…To suffer from piles was not a dignified mishap.”

Only three people knew of his condition: “His brother, Prince Jerome; his doctor, Baron Larrey---who had served him for 20 years---and his valet. Marchand…and it was only Jerome who revealed the secret, years after the emperor’s death…He was often constipated, too. His own remedy was to apply leeches to the affected part, but Larrey had a notion that he recommended. In an acute attack, the piles would no doubt have prolapsed and become extremely painful.

Yet, he was in the saddle again for most of another day…Jerome’s revelation was not made public until 1900…Cystitus…seemed to be brought on in acute attacks by cold and wet---and during the pursuit to Waterloo, the emperor was soaked to the skin like everybody else. Cystitus can cause a high fever…with a constant need to pass water, and acute pain when one does so---a pain that can absorb an ordinary patient’s attention and make him unable to concentrate his mind on anything else.

“If Houssaye’s supposition was true, the piles had started on the night after Ligny, and the cystitis on the day after Quatre Bras, and the emperor on the day of Waterloo was suffering both these crippling kinds of pain, and possibly had a fever---yet still had to try to direct his army, to force himself to think, and be active, and to hide the pain and indignity from the thousands of men who were watching him.

“Perhaps his brain was chronically less sharp then it had been; that must always remain a hypothesis, but whether it was or not, the passing effect of piles, cystitis, and weariness are enough to account for everything he did---or failed to do. He behaved that day like a sick man preoccupied with pain.

“On St. Helena---when he had nothing else to do---Napoleon took a great interest in his own ailments, but he never confessed to anyone that he felt ill at Waterloo, that might’ve seemed an admission that he was to blame, a thing he never admitted. He did say that in

his last campaign, his old confidence deserted him. That morning---while the armies waited to see, and he seemed to struggle with his physical distress---his words and actions suggested the opposite: that he was illogically over-confident, but perhaps he was making a display of confidence, to hide his own doubts from his generals, or even from himself.”

The result, then, was that while Napoleon sat as in a stupor on the morning of the battle, three-quarters of a mile behind the line---an uncharacteristic position for him!---Wellington (whom Napoleon had never fought before) was up front, reviewing his troops, and “in the best of health.” In fact, says Howarth, Napoleon spent most of the day out of sight of the battle, which was actually directed by Marshal Ney. Ney could not see out of it; from nine in the morning to seven at night, they did not see each other…Not even he (Napoleon) could direct a battle from so far away.”

The rest is known to history. Napoleon---as the saying goes---“had met his Waterloo.”

Second Abdication---and St. Helena

Again Napoleon abdicated and sought asylum in England, of all places! Late in 1815, the British sent him into exile on the volcanic rock of St. Helena, which was barely 28 miles in circumference. He was to live there for 5 ½ years with a small retinue of officers, servants, and their wives, under the watchful eyes of a stern British governor, Lt. Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe (who arrived early in 1816), and a contingent of English troops. The island was 4,000 miles from France in the South Atlantic, with rats, fleas, and bugs at Longwood House.

Much controversy to this day swirls about Napoleon’s sojourn on St. Helena. The French charged the British with deliberately placing the emperor in an unhealthy, tropical environment designed to shorten his life prematurely. The British responded that this was only postwar politics, and an attempt---begun and fostered by Napoleon of a legend based on his martyrdom, to help restore the Bonapartists to power, as, indeed, it did a generation later.

Overall, there are dark hints of arsenic poisoning.

Napoleon and Lowe took an immediate dislike to each other, with the emperor accusing the governor in August 1816 (during their last face-to-face meeting) of trying to poison him with rotten meat: “You would poison me if you had the courage, or were sent orders to do so!” Once---when Lowe threatened to enter his quarters against Napoleon’s wishes, the latter called for his pistols!

The emperor had two major medical consultants during the St. Helena experience: “Dr. Barry O’Meara---an Irishman who had been a surgeon in the Royal Navy and who was assigned to Napoleon as a personal physician---and…Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, who replaced O’Meara after the latter was sent back to Europe in 1818 by the British authorities.”

Dr. Antommarchi---a fellow Corsican---was sent to St. Helena by Napoleon’s aged mother to look after the emperor. Unlike Dr. O’Meara, Dr. Antommarchi thought---until the last six months of Napoleon’s life---that the emperor’s consistent complaints of ill health were based on political, and not medical, grounds.

Nevertheless, Felix Markham stated that, “In the second half of 1817, Napoleon suffered increasingly from swelling of the legs, and in October 1818, O’Meara diagnosed hepatitis and treated him with mercury. In England, Dr. O’Meara told his government, “Considering the disease of the liver with which he is afflicted, the progress it has made in him, and reflecting upon the great mortality produced by that complaint in…St. Helena…it is my opinion that the life of Napoleon Bonaparte will be endangered by a longer residence…”

Meanwhile, Napoleon had given up horseback riding and other exercising in a dispute with Lowe, and---like Mussolini later---was subject to rolling on the floor and writhing in pain from his liver problems (from which his father had died.)

“In January 1819, he had a fainting attack, and Dr. Stokoe---a naval surgeon---was sent for. Stokoe confirmed O’Meara’s diagnosis of chronic hepatitis. For this, he incurred the wrath of Lowe, was court-martialed for collaboration with Longwood, and was retired from the service.”

On Oct. 4, 1820, an English neighbor described Napoleon as “Very pale, but fat and round as a China pig.” The emperor fainted again six days later after one of his famed steaming baths, vomited, and displayed a lack of appetite. Thus began the final phase of Napoleon’s long physical decline.

The Last Months

Recognizing his impending but long-drawn-out death, Napoleon dictated several personal and political testaments over the next few months, in between bouts of vomiting and delusions. He also dictated his own obituary to Lowe and demanded that his doctors perform an autopsy on him to prove his charges of English assassination.

The Final Days

On Apr. 1, 1821, an English Army surgeon---Dr. Archibald Arnott---came onto the case, but didn’t become alarmed by the patient’s condition until he vomited material resembling coffee grounds on Apr. 24th.

The emperor turned icy cold on the 30th, and on the morning of his death, murmured his last intelligible words: “France! The Army! At the head of the Army! Josephine!” Then, he leapt out of bed and tried to strangle one of his attendants, but was overpowered;16 people were present when he died at 5:49 PM on May 5, 1821.

Autopsy

The next day at noon, Napoleon’s autopsy was performed by Dr. Antommarchi, with five British surgeons and three officers (plus three Frenchmen) in attendance. Emil Ludwig Cohn quoted the doctor as stating, “You see, gentlemen, how this ulcerated part of the stomach has become adherent to the liver. What are we to infer? That the climate of St. Helena has intensified the gastric disorder, and has thus brought the emperor’s premature death.’

“A vote is taken: England against France. The majority declare the viscera to be healthy…”

Aftermath

On July 8, 1911, Dr. Arnott’s account---originally printed in 1822---Report of Appearances of the Dissection of the Body of Napoleon Bonaparte, appeared in the famed British medical journal, The Lancet, published by the Royal College of Surgeons: “On a superficial view, the body appeared very fat, which state was confirmed by the first incision down its center, where the fat was upwards of one inch over the sternum, and 1 ½ inch over the abdomen.

“On cutting through the cartilages of the ribs, and exposing the cavity of the thorax, a trifling adhesion of the left pleura to the pleura costalis was found; about three ounces of reddish fluid were contained in the left cavity, and nearly eight ounces in the right. The lungs were quite sound. The pericardium was natural, and contained about an ounce of fluid. The heart was of the natural size, but thickly covered with fat.

“The auricles and ventricles exhibited nothing extraordinary, except that the muscular parts appeared rather paler than natural. Upon opening the abdomen, the omentum was found remarkably fat, and on opening the stomach, the viscus was found the seat of extensive disease. Strong adhesions connected the whole superior surface, particularly about the pyloric extremity, to the concave surface of the left lobe of the liver, and on separating these an ulcer, which penetrated the coats of the stomach, was discovered an inch from the pylorus, sufficient to allow the passage of the little finger.

“The internal surface of the stomach---to nearly its whole extent---was a mass of cancerous disease, or scirrhus portions, advancing to cancer. This was particularly noticed near the pylorus. The cardiac extremity---for a small space near the termination of the esophagus---was the only part appearing in a healthy state.

“The stomach was found nearly filled with a large quantity of fluid, resembling coffee grounds. The convex surface of the left lobe of the liver adhered to the diaphragm, but with the exception of the adhesions occasioned by the disease in the stomach, no unhealthy appearance presented itself in the liver.

“The remained of the abdominal viscera were in a healthy state. A slight peculiarity in the formation of the left kidney was observed.”

Commenting on this report---of which Dr. Arnott was one of the signatories---he expresses surprise, ‘That a person not of Napoleon Bonaparte’s habits should’ve been affected with scirrhus and cancer of the stomach; a man who was noted for temperance, and never in his life indulged in any excess which could tend to produce such an affection.

“It is somewhat remarkable, however, that he (the emperor) often said that his father died of scirrhus of the pylorus. His son, of course, died from phthisis at an early age. It is to be noted that no examination of Napoleon’s brain is noted by Arnott.”

Arsenic Poisoning?

The debate of cancer versus liver disease versus ulcer goes on, but what of the charge of poisoning by arsenic? In the early 1960s, hairs preserved from Napoleon’s head were tested and “found to be abnormally high” in arsenic content. He was buried at St. Helena for 19 years, his body being returned to Paris only in 1840. When the coffin was opened, his body was found to be “Perfectly preserved;” indeed, “His beard and fingernails had grown a little…The ravages of cancer had restored to his once full features the lean and youthful look.”

Felix Markham concluded that some have, “Accordingly put forward the hypothesis that Napoleon’s death was due to chronic arsenic poisoning, accidental or premeditated. It seems, however, impossible to base any conclusions on these findings, as arsenic was used so freely in the medicine of the time that an abnormal tolerance was built up.”

Thus---even in death---Napoleon remains a figure of enduring controversy, mystery, and fascination.

© 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


* Napoleon’s Medical Case File


< Browse Previous Item  |  Up to Section  |  Browse Next Item >



[Search IHFHFilms.com:]
Quick search by title, author, item number, or descriptive word.
You may also type in any product item number listed in our paper catalog.