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Posted on May 25, 2005 in Armchair Reading

About Napoleon’s Death (July 2005 Issue)

By Mark Warren

I found it odd that you had an article regarding Napoleon being poisoned. There is just as much evidence to suggest he was not poisoned as was. I doubt that anyone can conclusively state how Napoleon died.

Study one
”His post mortem showed he died of stomach cancer, but it has been suggested arsenic poisoning or over-zealous treatment was to blame.

Now Swiss researchers say his trousers show he lost weight prior his death, confirming he had cancer. The research, by scientists from the anatomical pathology department of the University Hospital in Basel and the Institute of Medical History at the University of Zurich, looked at 12 pairs of Napoleon’s trousers. Four were from before his exile and eight were pairs he wore during the six years he spent in exile on St Helena, including the pair he wore while dying. The researchers also collated information from post mortems on the weights of patients who had died of stomach cancer. They then measured the waists of healthy people to work out the correlation between that measurement and their actual weight. This information was then used to calculate Napoleon’s weight in the months leading up to his death. The largest pair of trousers Napoleon wore had a waist measurement of 110cm; those he wore just before his death measured 98cm. This, they say, shows he lost between 11 and 15kg over the last six months of his life.


The Swiss team say the presence of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair, the source of the poisoning theory, was linked to this enthusiasm for wine. At the time, it was the custom of winemakers to dry their casks and basins with arsenic. Dr Alessandro Lugli, who carried out the study which appeared in the American Review of Human Pathology, told the BBC News website he thought theories about alternative explanations for Napoleon’s death would continue to be put forward. But he said: "We are sure that the autopsy report speaks clearly in favour of gastric [stomach] cancer." The demise of the French Emperor has provoked numerous theories.

Last year, researchers from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Department said in New Scientist magazine that it was regular doses of antimony potassium tartrate, or tartar emetic a poisonous colourless salt which was used to make him vomit, that killed him. He was also given regular enemas.

Study two
As for the presence of arsenic in his hair, which was the source of the poisoning theory, the Swiss scientists say it was due to the winemakers` custom at that time of drying their casks and basins with arsenic. Napoleon was said to be an amateur vintner.

The theories don`t end there. An American researcher Steven Karch last year put the blame for Napoleon`s death on his doctors. To relieve the imperial stomach pains, they gave Napoleon strong enemas which led to a loss of potassium and triggered fatal cardiac problems.

The Swiss study was led by Alessandro Lugli, a specialist in anatomical pathology at the university hospital in Basel in collaboration with the institute of medical history at the University of Zurich.

Mark Warren

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