Science and History
November 4, 2008

The location of the “Sydney” warship has been another reminder of the great assistance that science can provide historians. Another reminder in the last few days has been the way that the British have been cleared of murdering Napoleon. But his death carries a warning to people today about the need to eat well.

Napoleon was defeated at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo (in Belgium) and he surrendered to the British. They took him to the Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic. He was left to write his memoirs.

After less than six years of captivity on St Helena, Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. He was only 52. Although that was an “old” age by 19th century standards, there seemed to be some mystery about his death. Napoleon had been in reasonably good health for most his life and he was not overweight. He took good care of his health, for example, he did not, drink alcohol in large quantities.

The original 1815 autopsy said that he had died from stomach cancer. But from the 1950s onwards a new set of theories emerged. With the improved methods of medical analysis it was possible to measure the level of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair (some of which had been cut off the body as relics of the great man).

How did Napoleon get such a high level of arsenic in his body? Was he murdered by the British or did it occur through everyday activities?

Arsenic was a common poison in those days. It was added to the victim’s food or drink in very small doses and it gradually accumulated in the body. The British and the other Allies (according to this theory) had a good reason to get rid of him. If he escaped again he could have been a threat to European security.

On the other hand, the arsenic could have been absorbed accidentally. It was the custom of winemakers to dry their casks and basins with arsenic. They did not intend to kill their customers. They had no idea that the procedure was so risky. It was also widely used in glues and dyes. For example, some people blamed interiors decorators for killing Napoleon because they used arsenic in the wallpaper in his rooms.

All the people of that era had (by today’s standards) alarmingly high levels of arsenic in their body. In effect, it was the asbestos crisis of its day – a widely used substance with many industrial applications whose dangers only became apparent much later on.

For decades the speculation about Napoleon’s death by poisoning went back and forth. It was agreed that arsenic was the culprit but there was no agreement on whether it was murder or accidental death.

We are now back with the stomach cancer explanation. An international team of scientists have agreed that there was a high level of arsenic in Napoleon (as there would have been in the bodies of his contemporaries) but arsenic itself was not the killer. There were no signs of fatal arsenic poisoning (such as haemorrhaging inside the heart).

Instead, there were many signs of stomach cancer: rapid weight loss (his trousers have been preserved and have been measured to show how he lost weight), and the official 1821 autopsy revealed lesions in the stomach.

The question is, then, how did he get the cancer. There may have been a genetic predisposition to it (the family history is unclear on this point). But it may also be due to his diet. Like his military contemporaries, he often ate salt-preserved foods and had few fresh fruits and vegetables. He may have eaten himself to death.