Napoleon Bonaparte was many things: emperor of the French, ruler of France, war general during the French Revolution, protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, mediator of the Swiss Confederation, and King of Italy. What he wasn’t, was poisoned.
In 1815, Napoleon was defeated by the British and exiled to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. He died six years later from what the autopsy would suggest was stomach cancer, but traces of arsenic found in the deceased ruler’s hair in 1961 sparked rumors that Napoleon had, in fact, been poisoned.
Such a notion was not hard to conceive; if Napoleon had escaped from his exile on the island of St. Helena, he could have easily altered the balance of power in Europe – something that his enemies would have gone to great lengths to prevent. Therefore, the suspicion of murder by poison did not seem implausible.
Yet, some forty-five years later, a new study is brought forth putting to rest a mystery so old it has a bicentennial. A combination of Napoleon’s original autopsy reports, along with the memoirs of his doctors, family medical history, and eyewitness accounts, found that the immediate cause of the French ruler’s death was gastrointestinal bleeding.
Napoleon’s original autopsy showed that the general’s stomach did indeed have two ulcerated lesions – a small one that had broken through the wall of the stomach and was in the liver, and a larger one on the stomach itself. Robert Genta, lead study author at Texas Southwestern University, and his colleagues reached the conclusion that Napoleon’s lesions were cancerous; they did this by comparing his lesions with images (which were not available during Napoleon’s time) of 50 gastric cancers and 50 benign ulcers.
Genta reported that the blockage was “a huge mass from the entrance of his stomach to the exit…at least 10 centimeters long.” 10 centimeteres, which translates to 4 inches, is quite large, according to Genta, which “suggests the lesion was cancer.”
So what does any of this mean? It indicates that Napoleon wouldn’t have had any influence on the flux of power in Europe even if he had escaped from captivity, because his illness would have prevented him from doing so. Genta concluded these statements, adding, “Even today, with the availability of sophisticated surgical techniques and chemotherapies, patients with gastric cancer as advanced as Napoleon’s have a poor prognosis.” Napoleon’s case was severe because it had spread to his other organs. “Even if treated today,” Genta added, “he’d have been dead within a year.”