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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Napoleon 'killed by his doctors'
Napoleon Bonaparte
What was the cause of Napoleon's death?
Over-enthusiastic medics - not cancer or murder - may have caused Napoleon Bonaparte's death, researchers suggest.

Researchers from the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Department outline their theory for the French Emperor's demise in New Scientist magazine.

They say doctors killed Napoleon through over-zealous treatment.

Napoleon died aged 52 in 1821, on the island of St Helena in the south Atlantic where he had been banished after his defeat at Waterloo.

It's not as sexy as the idea that he was murdered.
Dr Steven Karch, San Francisco Medical Examiner's Department
Most historians accept the official explanation that Napoleon died from stomach cancer.

This was the verdict of an autopsy carried out after his death by his personal physician Francesco Antommarchi and witnessed by five other doctors.

Stomach cancer had also killed Napoleon's father.

But doubts were raised in 2001 when French forensic specialists said tests on Napoleon's hair suggested a "major exposure to arsenic".

It was suggested that the British governor of St Helena, Hudson Lowe, conspired with French count Charles de Montholon to assassinate Napoleon

'Heart condition?'

This new theory from the US scientists says arsenic clears the two suspects. It says exposure to the poison from coal smoke and other environmental sources could have been a factor in Napoleon's death.

But they say it is more likely that it was the treatments given to Napoleon in an attempt to cure him that actually killed him.

He was given regular doses of antimony potassium tartrate, or tartar emetic a poisonous colourless salt which was used to make him vomit. He was also given regular enemas.

The researchers, led by forensic pathologist Steven Karch, say this would have caused a serious potassium deficiency, which can lead to a potentially fatal heart condition called Torsades de Pointes in which rapid heartbeats disrupt blood flow to the brain.

They say the final straw is likely to have been a 600 milligram dose of mercuric chloride, given as a purge to clear the intestines two days before his death.

This was five times the normal dose, and would have depleted his potassium levels still further, they say.

Dr Karch told BBC News Online he came to his conclusions after looking at modern cases where treatments had led patients to develop a potassium deficiency, and then Torsades de Pointes.

He said: "There is a very strong argument for this - but it's not as sexy as the idea that he was murdered.

"The arsenic wasn't killing him - his doctors did him in!"

However Phil Corso, a retired Connecticut doctor, who advocates the cancer theory, told New Scientist: "It's really far-fetched when you think about it. He said Napoleon had clearly been sick for some time and would have died from his tumour, regardless of the treatment meted out to him by doctors.

British 'cleared' of Napoleon's murder
29 Oct 02  |  Science/Nature


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