THE POISONING OF NAPOLEON
The latest tests conducted at the Institut de Médecine Légale in Strasbourg, France, and at the Laboratoire de Santé at the University of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, have established definitive proof
NAPOLEON WAS A VICTIM OF LONG-TERM ARSENIC POISONING
THE THEORY OF EXTERNAL CONTAMINATION DOES NOT STAND UP TO SCRUTINY: ARSENIC WAS GROWN INTO THE CORTEX OF NAPOLEON’S HAIR VIA THE BLOODSTREAM
Each year, experts in forensic toxicology gather for a conference under the auspices of The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists (TIAFT).
Founded in London in 1963, the Association’s headquarters is currently located in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Its 1,600 members are all highly trained scientists attached to laboratories serving law enforcement, hospitals, the offices of coroners and medical examiners, anti-doping laboratories, forensic medicine institutes, and departments of legal medicine, pharmacology, pharmacy and toxicology.
Each year, the TIAFT holds an international symposium, and has recently invited its members to Helsinki (2000), Prague (2001), and Paris (2002). Melbourne, capital city of Victoria, Australia, hosted the Association’s 41st International Meeting on November 17 – 22, 2003.
Among the participants was Dr. Pascal Kintz, former president of the Société Française de Toxicologie Analytique (French Society of Analytical Toxicology), and currently President Elect of The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists.
A brief history of the development of this theory, and of its strangely dogged rejection by some French Napoleonic historians in the face of mounting scientific evidence, is in order at this point in the presentation.
May 5, 1821: Emperor Napoleon dies on St. Helena, where he had been deported by the British government.
The official cause of death – the only one acknowledged in France – is stomach cancer. “Hereditary,” the promoters of this theory insist. Below, we relate the opinion of a medical expert, who gives the facts concerning the supposedly hereditary nature of this illness.
1955: The Memoirs of one of Napoleon’s fellow exiles, his valet Louis Marchand, are published. As he reads Marchand’s Memoirs, Swedish stomatologist Sten Forshufvud, who had previously studied toxicology at the University of Bordeaux in France, begins to question the commonly held belief that Napoleon died of an illness. Numerous symptoms described in the book match the clinical signs of chronic arsenic poisoning. Convinced that others will also note the presence of these symptoms, Dr. Forshufvud does nothing further for the time being.
First tests reveal the presence of arsenic
1961: Dr. Forshufvud obtains one of the Emperor’s hairs from Commandant Henry Lachouque, a well-known French Napoleonic historian who formally authenticated the provenance of the hair. Dr. Forshufvud then has the sample scientifically tested by Dr. Hamilton Smith who works at the department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Glasgow. Along with the Harwell Atomic Energy ResearchEstablishment near London, Dr. Smith had developed a method of bombarding a sample of hair with neutrons, activating the arsenic in such a way as to allow it to be measured with great precision. The tests reveal the presence of high concentrations of arsenic.
Following the publication of the results, doors in France suddenly close in the face of the amateur “historian-detective”. As a result, Dr. Forshufvud is, at first, unable to find other samples of hair that would allow Dr. Hamilton-Smith to widen the scope of the tests.
Salvation came from abroad.
- First, from Clifford Frey of Switzerland , who donated twenty hairs that had once belonged to one of Napoleon’s servants, a Swiss citizen named Abraham Noverraz. The results: the 140
To make the results of his research available to the public, Dr. Forhufvud wrote a book on the subject entitled: Was Napoleon Poisoned? (Napoléon a-t-il été empoisonné?).
The book was ridiculed by French Napoleonic historians, who considered the results of the tests carried out by Dr. Smith to be of no value, and who likened the theory to the plot of a bad detective novel. Even today, this attitude remains entrenched despite the mounting evidence obtained by leading experts internationally recognized in the field of toxicology.
In 1995, international entrepreneur, Dr. Ben Weider, who had been brought up by his father to revere Napoleon, founded the International Napoleonic Society to promote the study of the real personality of Napoleon.
Present in 40 countries, the Society today counts over 500 members, including several historians, among them, the Englishman Dr. David Chandler and American Dr. Don Horward
As soon as Dr. Weider got wind of Forshufvud’s theory, he hastened to make contact with the Swede. The two men first met in 1963. They saw each other again in 1966, and finally in 1974, “official” date of the Canadian’s entry into the arena, each time to define the best possible methods available to enable them to progress in their research and prove their theory.
Criticism from "official" Napoleonic circles in France rained down on the very
He went to the Chief of the FBI Laboratory’s Chemical/Toxicological Unit, and after having spent some time interesting him in the case, entrusted him with two hairs from the lock of hair belonging to Gregory Troubetzkoy.
Tests with Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy confirmed the results obtained by Dr. Hamilton Smith in Glasgow.
The Unit Chief for Chemistry/Toxicology, Roger M. Martz, sent the following comments along with the results:
August 28, 1995
"The FBI Laboratory examined two of Napoleon’s hairs that you had submitted for arsenic analysis. Listed below are the arsenic results which were analyzed by Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy.
"The amount of arsenic present in the submitted hairs is consistent with poisoning by arsenic..."
After having written three books, including The Murder of Napoleon in 1982 (one million copies sold, all editions inclusive), on the subject of the mysterious death of the Emperor, Ben Weider published yet another book in 1999 entitled Napoléon est-il mort empoisonné ?, and as yet, available only in French, in order to make known the results of the FBI analysis.
The French Napoleonic circle continued its “resistance” with renewed sarcasm.
On May 4th, Ben Weider organized a symposium at the French Senate, to present the results obtained by the FBI to French experts in toxicology and to historians specialized in the Napoleonic era.
Just as the French historians – despite their understandable lack of training in scientific matters – had never accepted the results of the tests performed at the request of Dr. Sten Forshufvud by the University of Glasgow laboratory, French scientists, without openly admitting it, showed they were more than reluctant to accept tests performed at a foreign laboratory, be it that of the FBI itself.
Why this hostility? Because , on the one hand, the samples tested were extremely small, weighing 35 and 45 micrograms, and on the other hand, because the hairs had been segmented. For, the smaller the sample, the greater the risk of interference from “background noise” – comparable to the “hiss” of a blank cassette tape – in the machine. This background noise had disturbed the linearity of the signal output.
The tests make the presence of arsenic visible as a peak in the signal; the surface area of the peak gives an indication of the concentration of arsenic. The larger the surface, the greater the concentration of poison (or of any other substance traced). To obtain reliable results, it is important to have access to a sufficient quantity of biological material, in this case, hairs.
The FBI, which had worked with quantities approximately a thousand times smaller, was obliged to multiply by one hundred the low numbers obtained from the tiny quantity of hair available, in order to be able to express the results in the standard unit, the milligram. However, given the configuration in this case, the peaks resulting from the background noise of the machine had themselves also been multiplied by one hundred. This made it difficult to distinguish between a “true” result revealing arsenic poisoning, and a background noise signal.
Notwithstanding these technical difficulties, these results did provide confirmation for the test results previously obtained in Glasgow.
As for French Napoleonic historians, they responded by launching an attack in the press against the man who had dared to trample on their turf.
Anyone who masters French will have noted that some of the articles border on defamation of character.
After deciding to take their reservations into account, Dr. Weider announced publicly that he would proceed with further tests at a major laboratory, which would be located in France this time.
The laboratory selected was the Institut de Médecine Légale in Strasbourg (see sidebar).
On September 15, 2000, Ben Weider gave five samples of hair to be tested to
- The “Lady Holland” lock : Las Cases relates that together with her husband, a nephew of British politician Charles James Fox, who Napoleon held in high esteem, Lady Holland succeeded in securing for the deported Emperor, newspapers and various presents, such as “an apparatus newly invented for the purpose of making ice,” since it was known that Napoleon liked cool drinks. (Unfortunately, the machine did not perform as promised).
- The “Abbé Vignali” lock : cut on May 6, 1821
- The “ Noverraz” lock: cut on May 6, 1821, the day after the death of Napoleon.
“It is,” wrote Noverraz, “a great pleasure today, Monsieur Mons, to send you some hairs of the Emperor Napoleon which I took from his head after his death. That was May the 6 th, 1821.”
Hairs from this same lock, which subsequently became the property of Swiss entrepreneur Clifford Frey, had already been analyzed by Dr. Hamilton Smith.
- The “ Louis Marchand” lock: this lock belonged to Commandant Henry Lachouque, mentioned above.
- The “Las Cases” lock: the origin of this lock was a uthenticated by a passage dated Wednesday the 16 th of October, 1816, in the Memorial de Sainte-Hélène written by Las Cases.
“At the hour of his toilet, the Emperor had his hair cut by Santini [who had also accompanied him when he was exiled on Elba]; I was at his side, standing a pace behind him, when a large tuft of hair fell at my feet. The Emperor saw me stoop, and asked me what it was. I replied that I had retrieved something that I had dropped. He pinched my ear and smiled. He had just guessed the truth.”
The original envelope containing the hairs bore these words:
“Hairs from the Head of Napoleon retrieved by me at Longwood, as indicated in the Memorial, and given to Mr. William Fraser.”
To sum up : the provenance of the five locks of hair entrusted to the scientists at the Strasbourg Institut de Médecine Légale is indisputable, and entirely authenticated (below we will see the importance of this point).
A reminder : during the conference-debate given at Strasbourg on January 14, 2003, one of the participants (along with Dr. Pascal Kintz), Mr. Thierry Lentz, Director of the Fondation Napoléon, and a relentless opponent to the theory of chronic arsenic poisoning, consented to admit – publicly – that the hairs given by Dr. Ben Weider to the Strasbourg Institut de Médecine Légale were authentic.
While ordinary “witnesses” used in forensic medicine (blood, urine, saliva… all unavailable in the case of Napoleon) retain traces of foreign substances for only a few hours to a week, hair retains these substances over many years.
As biological tissue, hairs also have two major advantages:
- They accumulate a record of exposure to any substance (drugs, doping agents, medication or, in the present case, arsenic);
- They incorporate along their entire length every substance present in the blood. (At a rate of one centimeter per month, a hair six centimeters long allows up to six months of a person’s “biological past” to be examined.)
This time, the French scientists at Strasbourg had a sufficient quantity of samples (from 0.5 to 2.2 milligrams) to work on, and this removed the problem their American colleagues at the FBI had previously encountered.
There are only two tests that are validated by allinternational tribunals (an essential point that requires special mention here, as we will see further on):
- Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS)
ICP-MS involves the use of a plasma torch, and would have required a hair
- Electrothermal atomic absorption spectrometry (ETAAS)
Like most highly scientific testing methods, ETAAS is impossible to explain in everyday language. Its mode of operation has been succinctly outlined by Dr. Pascal Kintz as follows: the arsenic present in the biological sample (in this case, the hair specimen) is vaporized and atomized at high temperatures. It is then capable of absorbing radiation of a specific wavelength. The higher the number of arsenic atoms in the specimen—the higher its concentration of arsenic—the more radiation it will absorb. A low-arsenic specimen will absorb only 5 millirems out of a radiation dose of 100 millirems, while a specimen containing large quantities of arsenic will absorb 40 to 50 millirems.
The preliminary decontamination, which is standard procedure in forensic medicine, consists of “washing” the hair to be analyzed. This removes any substances, which may have been deposited along the hair shaft, such as preservatives, which are often cited by French Napoleonic historians as their explanation for the presence of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair. Indeed, apart from what is absorbed from the bloodstream, any substances present in the sweat or sebum of the scalp may collect on the outer sheath of the hair (see diagram below), and these must be removed before the analysis can proceed.
The best example is that of persons attending a party where marijuana is smoked: if their hair is not first decontaminated, it could test positive.
The hairs of Napoleon were therefore first decontaminated. This process consists of a number of stages. First, the hairs are passed through three successive baths (two of which are in acetone) and are vigorously agitated each time. After this treatment, any substance present on the outer sheath of the hair will drain into the liquid of the decontaminating bath.
Arsenic is part of a “normal” environment and is rarely totally absent from the body (see below). This is why there are “tolerance” levels for arsenic, which vary from country to country.
The results, which appear in the Table below, speak for themselves.
1) That the hairs of Napoleon present (in rounded numbers) concentrations of the toxic substance that are 7 to 38 times the “normal.”
2) That there are significant differences in the concentrations found.
What are the reasons for this?
- Average concentrations of “natural” arsenic found in the hairs of any individual vary considerably according to the part of the scalp from which they are taken. In a healthy subject, these doses are 0.35 ng/mg for hairs taken from the crown (the highest point of the calvarium along its medial line), 0.43 for hairs taken from the area of the forehead, 0.31 along the nape of the neck, and 0.46 around the temples. As can be seen below, these distinctions fit logically with the hypothesis of chronic poisoning.
- Since the samples analyzed were not all of the same length, they had not absorbed equivalent quantities of arsenic.
- Finally, although it cannot be proved with absolute certainty, some of the hairs may have been in the “anagenic” phase (the period of actual growth, lasting six months to a year), while others may have been in the “catagenic” phase (the period of inertia during which the hair ingests no substances), or even in the “teleogenic” phase, the point at which the hair is ready to fall out.
Here we touch on one of the preferred gambits used by French Napoleonic historians to refute or disparage our theory.
According to them, the presence of this toxic substance could be explained by the following causes:
Use of pharmaceutical preparations : Napoleon does not appear to have required any, or certainly not in such massive doses.
The drinking water : this was analyzed in the 1990s. The concentrations of arsenic were extremely low. If the drinking water had been the source, Napoleon would not have been the only person in his entourage to be poisoned.
Wallpaper, smoke from the fire, etc .: As mentioned above, Napoleon would not have been the only person poisoned.
Products used to preserve the hair : this possibility is the “warhorse” of the opponents to the theory of criminal poisoning, as will be seen further on. In France Napoleonic historians have been comforted in this old belief by the analysis published in the French popular science magazine Science & Vie (see below).
According to the leading champion of the “traditionalist” party, French historian Jean Tulard, a historian never affirms anything without formal proof (see further on). This, however, does not stop the same “traditionalists” from continuously and very seriously invoking all of the causes mentioned above as possible explanations for arsenic intoxication.
This divergence of certitudes is surprising enough, but more surprising still is the condescending attitude this French historian shows for the research of others, while he never seems to question his own theories enough to ask himself why these strange ambient toxic agents affected solely Napoleon and not his companions.
Seafood : an “original” idea put forward during the May 2000 symposium at the French Senate, by the representative of a large official laboratory.
According to this hypothesis, the arsenic present in the hair of Napoleon found its origin in… oysters and other seafood. This hypothesis - all the more original as it came from a representative of an official laboratory - was summarily dismissed by a Professor of Medicine present at the symposium, who pointed out that organic arsenic, such as that found in shellfish and seafood, is always immediately eliminated by the body.
The same traditionalist historians who “never affirm anything without proof” do not hesitate to add to the list, and always with the same grave and solemn assurance.
Boredom : in November of last year during a trip to São Paulo, where the
“Napoleon did not die of poisoning. He was tubercular [sic], he had an ulcer, and above all, he was bored. He died of boredom and sorrow” (end of quotation).
Yet where is the scientific “proof” to back up this extraordinary theory?
Finally, the arsenic may have been used as a toxic agent : this is the theory advanced by the International Napoleonic Society. Scientific proof for this theory has been established by tests carried out at the Strasbourg Institut de Médecine Légale.
In the February 1, 2004 issue of the Corsican newspaper, Corse Matin, historian
“They are making a fuss about traces of poison detected in his hair, but in Napoleon’s time, they soaked locks of hair in solutions of arsenic to preserve them! You see, a historian never makes a statement without formal proof” (end of quotation).
Question : Considering the results obtained by Professor Wennig and Dr. Kintz using Nano-SIMS at the University of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, what explanation will this long-standing opponent to the poisoning theory find now to justify the presence of poison in the cortex of Napoleon’s hair?
In November 2002 (issue 1022), Science & Vie, a French popular science magazine, published an article advertised on its cover by this title:
“Exclusive! – Napoleon was not assassinated”, with the following peremptory declaration in the headline:
“The conclusions of our inquiry are reported here: the evidence is irrefutable.”
In other words, the results of the tests carried out by the scientists of the Strasbourg Institut de Médecine Légale were completely erroneous.
Essential facts : as noted above, there are two — and only two — methods recognized and accepted by international tribunals for analyzing the levels of toxic substances in hair. The Strasbourg Institut de Médecine Légale used one of these methods for the series of tests it carried out at the end of the year 2000.
What about the method that was used by the laboratory of the Paris Préfecture de Police, to whom the popular science magazine gave a lock of Napoleon’s hair?
A key point : the technology used by this laboratory has never been validated by international tribunals, and its results have been published only once, in a popular science magazine that is not peer-reviewed.
According to the magazine, since arsenic was already present on hair that was cut in 1805 and 1814, that is before Napoleon was deported to St. Helena, the presence of arsenic cannot be due to “poisoning by ingestion”; it must be due to contamination by “conservation agents.” Conclusion: the contamination can only be external.
There is a serious flaw in this reasoning, which the readers of Science & Vie cannot have detected, because the article was written in such thick scientific “jargon” that, without the proper background, ordinary readers found themselves forced to accept the conclusions without being able to verify their merits.
Here is the flaw in the reasoning:
If, as the magazine claims, the arsenic is present only on the surface of the hair, a proper decontamination procedure (in simple terms: washing the hair properly) would eliminate it. The toxic substance would drain into the water, which would then, in turn, be analyzed: if the water subsequently tested positive for arsenic, this would constitute proof that the contamination was in fact external, and that the arsenic was “exogenous.”
This was not the case, which proves that the contamination could not be due to preservatives.
Hence the necessity to test the core of the hair samples to determine whether the arsenic was “endogenous,” in other words, grown into the hair through the bloodstream, and therefore “actively incorporated”. Tests to this effect were carried out in the autumn of 2003 in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Dr. Pascal Kintz had kept two of the hairs from the specimens used in the earlier tests carried out in the year 2000. One hair came from the specimen identified as “Las Cases,” while the other came from the specimen identified as “Abbé Vignali.”
The new tests were run using Nano-SIMS (Nano-Secondary Ion Mass Spectrography), a machine used only for research. There are only ten such mass spectrometers in the world (see the illustration below). It should be noted that the Nano-SIMS, which was placed at the disposal of Dr. Kintz by Dr. Robert Wennig, Professor of Toxicology at the University of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is a machine that is not generally used in ordinary forensic medicine.
If a criminal court had to judge the “Napoleon Case”, or any other case, the previous tests carried out with atomic absorption spectroscopy would have been sufficient.
However, given the polemics surrounding Napoleon’s hair, it was considered imperative to use Nano-SIMS in order to put an end to the tenacious myth of external contamination.
The previous method: atomic absorption spectroscopy, also used by the FBI, had already provided quantitative evidence pertaining to the hair’s overall “environment”. With Nano-SIMS, the analysis went to the hair’s innermost core.
The “profile” shown below was obtained by Nano-SIMS, whose functioning is explained and illustrated in the diagram and sidebar above.
There are a number of very large “spots” clearly visible in the medulla, the innermost part of the hair, that reveal the presence of arsenic.
The fact that some arsenic appears on the surface is very probably due to handling, as seen in the test results reported in the French popular science magazine Science & Vie. However, the important and irrefutable fact is that these images put an end once and for all to the hypothesis of external contamination by products used to preserve the locks of hair.
President of the International Napoleonic Society
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Official Representative of the International Napoleonic Society
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