A forty-year controversy has been settled by the latest toxicology tests carried out on the Emperor’s hair, confirming beyond doubt that he was indeed a victim of chronic arsenic poisoning.
Tell-tale strands of hair (AFP)
The theory of traces of arsenic detected in strands of the Emperor’s hair was advanced as early as 1961 and was supported over the years by other tests, especially in 1995 and 2000. However, the adherents of an alternative hypothesis, according to which Napoleon died of stomach cancer, never conceded their case; they contended that the arsenic detected in the hair was not an indication of poisoning, but simply resulted from preservative agents introduced after the Emperor’s death.
Dr Pascal Kintz
Recently, at the request of the President of the International Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider, a Canadian, new tests were conducted by Dr. Pascal Kintz(*), a toxicologist specializing in hair, who presented the results of his analysis at the Chem Tox Laboratory in Strasbourg , France . Atomic absorption spectrophotometry with electrothermic atomization was used to calculate exact measurements of the quantities of arsenic and recorded amounts that were from 7 to 38 times higher than natural levels. Furthermore, a NanoSIMS analysis found that arsenic was present in the centre of the hair, in the medulla, not around it, proving that it was spread in the bloodstream and not by external contamination.
The nature of the arsenic detected was identified as a mineral type (As lll) rather than organic. In fact, it was rat poison, very likely administered in low doses on a daily basis in the Emperor’s wine. However, Dr. Kintz stresses that “there is no specific evidence for the wine theory over other methods of delivery. Our tests are conclusive as to the poisoning and type of arsenic, but cannot explain its delivery .” The tests do not identify a guilty party and the hypotheses remain to be proved. One of the Emperor’s confidants on St. Helena , Count de Montholon, has been mentioned as a possibility, but so has the governor of the island, Hudson Lowe. The truth may never be known. Science is now able to explain the cause of death and also to confirm the source of the clinical symptoms observed during the last three years of Napoleon’s life. Dr. Bernard Charton, a general practitioner from Strasbourg , recently studied all the reports, tests and descriptions dealing with the Emperor’s time on St. Helena and identified numerous symptoms. “Taken individually,” he explained, “they have little significance, but considered as a whole, they clearly indicate arsenic poisoning.” Dr. Charton, who published his observations and diagnosis in 2003 (Napoleon Poisoned by Arsenic, Éditions Résurgence), is pleased that his theories have been confirmed by toxicologists and pays tribute to the doctors and observers of the period who meticulously described Napoleon’s symptoms and tested numerous poisonous substances that he came into contact with. It is on their account, he stressed, that the first suspicions arose at the time of the Emperor’s death, long before toxicology diagnosis.
Le Quotidien du Médecin : o7/06/2005