French food killed Napoleon

18th January 2007, Comments 0 comments

After 186 years France may have to stop blaming Britain for the death of their most famous conqueror, Napoleon, as a study favours a stomach cancer induced by military food, reports AFP's Richard Ingham.

Nearly 186 years later, a scientific study has cleared Britain of the calumny that it murdered Napoleon, declaring instead that l'empereur was felled by stomach cancer -- and French military food was a possible cause.

Napoleon's coronation

In the latest twist in a long-running medical saga, pathologists in the United States reassessed Napoleon's clinical history, the original autopsy and other documents, and compared this evidence with data from 135 gastric cancer patients.

They say they find no evidence to support the enduring myth in France that the perfidious British poisoned Napoleon while he was exiled on St. Helena, where he died in 1821 at the age of 51.

These dark suspicions have endured for nearly two centuries, latterly nourished by the discovery that locks cut from Bonaparte after his death contained arsenic that was between seven and 38 times normal levels.

Instead, the US team say the official autopsy, which concluded stomach cancer was the cause of death, was right.

The post-mortem was a thorough and detailed examination carried out by Boney's personal doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, in the presence of five British physicians.

It found a huge tumour that ran at least 10 centimetres (four inches) down the side of Napoleon's stomach. And it also came across "enlarged and hardened" gastric lymph nodes -- indicators, says the study, that this cancer was in an advanced, tertiary stage.

Napoleon's grave

Even today, "patients with such tumours have a notoriously poor prognosis," says the study, which appears in January's issue of a specialist journal Gastroenterology and Hepatology, published by the Nature group in London.

"Even if the former emperor had been released or had escaped from St. Helena before 1821, his terminal condition would have prevented him from having a further major role in the theatre of European history," it adds.

What finished Napoleon was a "massive gastric haemorrhage", it says.

The paper goes further, delving into Napoleon's medical history, his family background and his diet.

As there is scant evidence that Napoleon had a genetic predisposition to cancer, the likelihood is that the disease developed, as is often the case, from a prepyloric ulcer, it said.

"The risk might have been further increased by his diet, which probably included salt-preserved foods, thoroughly roasted meats and few fresh fruits and vegetables -- standard fare for long military campaigns," says the study.

The lead author of the study is Robert Genta, a professor of pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern's Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

Discovery of the arsenic in Bonaparte's hair in 1961 strengthened the hand of conspiracists who said he had been slowly but deliberately poisoned by the British.

But later studies suggested the toxicity levels were high because they came from exposure to arsenic in the wallpaper in his room or to hair tonic. Both products at that time contained lots of arsenic.

In 2004, another theory emerged for Napoleon's demise -- one that might be termed "the riddle of the sphincter."

This hypothesis is that he was weakened by repeated doses of colonic irrigation to ease his symptoms of stomach pains and intestinal cramps.

That brutal treatment, combined with regular doses of a chemical called antimony potassium tartrate to induce vomiting, would have left him perilously short of potassium.

That, in turn, can lead to a lethal heart condition known in English, as in French, as "torsades de pointes," in which the blood flow to the brain is disrupted by bursts of scattered, irregular heart beats. Arsenic would have made him more vulnerable to this condition.

Meanwhile, a small but vocal group in France is campaigning for Napoleon's corpse, buried beneath the gilt dome of the Invalides military hospital in Paris, to be disinterred and submitted to a DNA test.

They believe the British swappe

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