Nearly 200 years after his death, scientists now reveal what likely caused the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor ruled France from the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. After his defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to an island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Six years later, Napoleon died on May 5, 1821 at the age of 52.
His death would remain speculative for years to come. Could modern science help determine his cause of death?
Three theories have persisted for years. Was he poisoned by arsenic? Did he die of gastric (stomach) cancer?…or…Did he die as a result of syphilis?
An autopsy was conducted immediately after his death, providing his physician with a crucial piece of evidence, which led to the conclusion that his death was the result of stomach cancer. The 1821 report described a 10 cm lesion found in his stomach. In addition, a 1938 study indicated his father had died of gastric cancer, thus believing a predisposition existed in the family. Paintings of Napoleon often depicted him with his right hand in his vest leading to speculation that perhaps he experienced pain near his stomach.
But in 1955 new evidence surfaced. The diaries of Napoleon’s valet were printed, detailing his last few months with the ailing emperor, sparking debates that perhaps stomach cancer was not the culprit.
Could he have been poisoned by arsenic? Scientists investigated this question in the early 1960’s, publishing their findings in Nature. Strands of Napoleon’s hair (saved for years by his personal staff) were tested for traces of arsenic. Results revealed marked elevations of arsenic concentrations. Experts now rumored perhaps Napoleon was deliberately poisoned by the British during his exile. But could arsenic have entered his system another way?
What about as a result of syphilis? Many historical figures are suspected to have suffered from syphilis, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection. In the final tertiary phase of the disease, lesions develop on the skin, organs, and bone, causing a great amount of pain. If Napoleon was infected, some posited he might have consumed arsenic to treat syphilis. However, there is no proof that he was afflicted and historical research indicates that mercury was much more commonly used for treatment in the 1800’s.
So did he die of stomach cancer? Although unable to analyze his body, experts including Dr. Robert Genta, professor of pathology and internal medicine, recently compared the original autopsy description of the lesion with modern images of 50 benign ulcers and 50 gastric cancers. They determined that no benign cancer could look like the lesion described in the autopsy. “It was a huge mass from the entrance of his stomach to the exit. It was at least 10 centimeters long. Size alone suggests the lesion was cancer,” Dr. Genta said. As for the paintings’ theories, other famous individuals were painted in similar positions, suggesting a stance of importance rather than due to gastric cancer.
In the end, Napoleon’s cause of the death will never be definitively determined. Evidence most cogently suggests that he did indeed have gastric cancer. But did it ultimately result in his demise? Most likely. The other theories of syphilis and arsenic poisoning by the British are quite interesting but not enough observational data is evident to associate them to his death. Certainly, future studies will continue to speculate on this long-debated subject.