Friday, March 5, 2010

Napoleon's hair

A new tuft of the hair of Napoleon I (1769-1821) has turned up (2nd image) in Sydney, Australia, but it won't be needed to test for arsenic levels, because the cause of the exiled French emperor (1st image) has been definitively established. Imprisoned for 6 years on the Atlantic island of St. Helena, Napoleon's health began to fail and he died within 3 months. An autopsy found his cause of death to be stomach cancer, but Napoleon's physician refused to sign the official report. Beginning in 1961, there was speculation that the emperor had been accidentally or deliberately poisoned over time with arsenic. When his body was transferred to France in 1840, it was found to be remarkably preserved, which is characteristic of the preservative effects of the compound. He had been quenching an insatiable thirst with an almond-flavored beverage and the wallpaper in his home contained arsenic, so he may have absorbed the dangerous chemical in liquid and/or gaseous form. A 2008 study analyzed hair samples from throughout his life and found that it contained arsenic at 100 times today's normal levels, but that this was typical of someone who had absorbed it from glues, dyes, coal smoke, cosmetics, and other sources over a lifetime. A 2007 study confirmed stomach cancer as the cause of death, and - although a doctor stated that Napoleon "would have died from his tumor, regardless of the treatment meted out to him by doctors" - it was suggested that his death was hastened by treatments which caused a serious potassium deficiency. A report in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences found that Napoleon's skin did not show the hyperkeratosis and changes in pigmentation, and he did not exhibit the neurological and other symptoms, associated with arsenic poisoning. Even though diagnosis at the time of his death had to rely on gross appearance rather than tissue miscroscopy, the original autopsy report clearly shows that Napoleon "...had extensive scirrhous carcinoma of the stomach, probably complicated by partial gastric obstruction manifested clinically by intractable vomiting and hiccupping (diaphragmatic irritation) in the last few months of his life." So he wasn't poisoned, but he was plagued on his deathbed by hiccups and relic-seekers snipping off at least a dozen bits of his hair.


  1. Thanks, Chris. I'm a huge NB fan, and I had not kept up-to-date on COD (I had read all the arsenic theories). Anything on him is fascinating, to me.

  2. I too have a lock of Napoleons shaved from his the day after he died.
    Take a look


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