What Killed Napoleon?

ByABC News
January 17, 2007, 4:04 PM

Jan. 17, 2007— -- Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile in 1821. But his story never does.

His personal physician reported on his death certificate that Napoleon died of stomach cancer, but scientists, historians and enthusiasts have questioned the conclusion repeatedly over the last two centuries. Surely, said many, he was poisoned.

They found locks of his hair, which, they said, contained toxic levels of arsenic. They went through his valet's diaries. They noted that when his body was unearthed in 1840, it was remarkably well-preserved.

So sorry to disappoint, says Dr. Robert Genta of Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas in Dallas. Napoleon's doctor got it right the first time: The defeated emperor died of advanced gastric cancer.

"It's become fashionable to ask if the course of history would have been changed if he had somehow escaped his exile, gone back to Paris, perhaps reconquered France," said Genta. "And the answer is probably no. His cancer was so advanced that even if somebody could have smuggled him out, he was in such terrible shape that he would have died very quickly."

How does one come to such a conclusion about a man who has been dead for so long? The answer is good old-fashioned detective work.

The facts -- to the extent historians can agree on them -- are these:

Having dominated Europe and been beaten back, Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was imprisoned and then exiled to Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,700 miles off the African coast.

His British captors wanted him far out of the way -- he had already escaped once from the Mediterranean island of Elba.

During the last six years of his life, he was often ill, and he had a rapid downturn in his final six months. His doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, reported that Napoleon had strong abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, night sweats and progressive weakening. "For me," he was quoted as saying, "every activity is a Herculean task."