Did Napoleon's doctors finish him off?

July 21, 2004

NAPOLEON Bonaparte wasn't murdered. He was killed by his overenthusiastic doctors, according to a study of records from the emperor's final weeks. Controversy over Napoleon's death in exile on the island of St Helena has been raging for more than half a century. Most historians accept the official version: that he died from stomach cancer. This was the verdict of an autopsy by his personal physician, Francesco Antommarchi, which was observed by five English doctors. What's more, Napoleon's father had died of the same disease. The most colourful version of events is that the emperor was murdered by his confidant Count Charles de Montholon.

The army officer was supposedly in the pay of French royalists worried that Napoleon would return to France. Montholon could have poisoned the emperor by putting arsenic in his wine- an idea that was bolstered by the discovery of arsenic in locks of Napoleon's hair collected after his death. Now forensic pathologist Steven Karch at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Department and his team have come up with the idea that it was medical misadventure that finished Napoleon off. Every day the doctors gave Napoleon an enema to relieve his symptoms. "They used really big, nasty syringe-shaped things," Karch says. This, combined with regular doses of antimony potassium tartrate to make him vomit, would have left his body seriously short of potassium, which can lead to a lethal heart condition called "torsades de pointes" in which bouts of rapid heartbeats disrupt blood flow to the brain.

Any arsenic in Napoleon's body, which may have come from coal smoke and other sources in the environment, would also have predisposed him to torsades, but on its own is unlikely to have pushed him over the edge, Karch says. The final straw was probably 600 milligrams of mercuric chloride given as a purge. This was five times the normal dose, and would have depleted his potassium levels further. Napoleon died two days later. None of this convinces Phil Corso, a retired doctor from Connecticut who is a strong proponent of the cancer theory. "It is really far-fetched when you think about it," he says. Napoleon had clearly been ill for a long time and his doctors are unlikely to have made much of a difference, Corso says.
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This article appears in New Scientist issue: 24 July 2004

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Author: James Randerson

New Scientist

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