The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Blame it on baldness, not the Brits
- Arsenic found in hair not a result of poisoning, says new study

Paris, Oct. 28: Napoleon lost the battle at Waterloo, but it didn’t kill him.

It was the arsenic poisoning that did it, the French have so far believed. And who else but the British, who had exiled him to St Helena, would have slowly killed their emperor'

Arsenic' Oui. Poisoning' Non.

A losing battle — against baldness — explains the arsenic, if the conclusion drawn from a recent chemical analysis of his hair is correct.

Napoleon died while he was in exile on St Helena on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. The doctors who had carried out the post-mortem on Napoleon had said a perforated stomach ulcer that had turned cancerous was the main cause of his death. He was buried on the island but his body was later removed and re-buried in Paris on the banks of the Seine, as he had wished.

In 1952, Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud read the published account of Napoleon’s death and based on his knowledge of toxicology, came to the conclusion that he had been murdered.

In his will, Napoleon claimed that he had been “murdered by the British” — his relations with the British governor of St Helena, Hudson Lowe, were bitter.

For decades, the ugly rumour gripped French historical circles that the British — true to their perfidious nature — slowly poisoned l’empereur.

Convincing proof of these suspicions appeared to emerge in June 2001, when a team led by Strasbourg autopsy specialist Pascal Kintz did a chemical analysis of a lock of hair cut from Bonaparte after his death.

They found the hairs contained levels of arsenic, which were between seven and 38 times normal levels. “An incontrovertible sign of poisoning,” Kintz said darkly.

Heads nodded around France.

The magazine, Science et Vie (Science and Life), has carried out a fresh inquiry on 19 hairs taken from Napoleon in 1805, 1814 — before he went into exile — and in 1821.

All the samples contain massive doses of arsenic, ranging from 15 to 100 parts per million (ppm), it reported today. On an average, human hair contains only 0.8 ppm of arsenic, and the maximum limit considered safe is three ppm.

“There was no poisoning,” the magazine declares bluntly.

Ivan Ricordel, head of the toxicology laboratory at the Paris police headquarters, who led the team that carried out the latest tests, is adamant.

“If arsenic caused Napoleon’s death, he would have died three times over,” he says.

The conclusion is drawn after an exhaustive 18-month battery of 1,000 tests on the 19 samples, chief of which was synchrotron radiation, which uses a laser beam in the X-ray part of the energy spectrum to detect traces of individual chemicals.

Because of the way hair grows and the way it absorbs arsenic, the poison is spread across the strand, which make it impossible to say exactly when the chemical was absorbed.

So where did the arsenic come from'

Science et Vie sees several possibilities. It could have come from arsenic in the wallpaper at Longwood House where Napoleon lived. Green pigment detected in the wallpaper was found to have contained arsenic, in which case the emperor would still have been killed by the British — but by British wallpaper-makers and unwittingly at that.

Many of the other people who were with Napoleon on St Helena had become ill and complained of the ‘bad air’, and his butler did actually die.

The wood used to heat the rooms in the house could have been a source, as might have been gun cartridges, which had arsenic at the time and which Napoleon would have handled.

However, “the most plausible source”, the magazine says, is the most banal: hair restorer, a product that in the early 19th century typically contained lots of arsenic.

What killed the emperor then'

In 1982, a US specialist, Dr Robert Greenblatt, came up with an answer. He suggested that, far from being a sick man, Napoleon was becoming a sick woman because he was suffering from a glandular disease.

Greenblatt said the disease explained why one of the doctors who examined the emperor’s body after his death had observed: “His type of plumpness was not masculine; he had beautiful arms, rounded breasts, white soft skin (and) no hair.”

The French may not like it, but the arsenic in the hair is no surprise.

Written with an AFP report

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