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Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's Love of Cologne May Be What Killed Him, Says UK Biochemist

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There has long been speculation about the true cause of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death on the island of St. Helena on May 5, 1821. As we mark the 200th anniversary of this event, a biochemist from De Montfort University in Leicester (United Kingdom) believes he has finally solved the mystery of what killed one of history’s most recognized figures.

It was his love of cologne that killed him, asserts Parvez Haris, a professor of biomedical science at De Montfort’s School of Allied Health Sciences . According to Dr. Haris, Napoleon slowly poisoned himself to death over a number of years, by heavily and continuously using a type of men’s cologne that contained potentially toxic ingredients.

The Fragrance of Death

Napoleon was a great promoter of Colognes, which first went into commercial production in 1792,” Dr. Haris explained. “For at least 20 years he was bathing his body in it, pouring it over his head and, in some cases, he was quite literally lapping it up. He took bottles with him during his military campaigns and diplomatic missions.  Records show he was going through two to three bottles a day when, even now, people may use a bottle a year!”

The two-time emperor of France was convinced his favorite cologne could protect him from illness and premature death. As strange as this idea sounds, there may have been some basis for his belief.

Napoleon’s Bathing Kit

Napoleon’s Bathing Kit ( Louvre Museum / Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon used a type of cologne that contained large amounts of alcohol, which is useful as an antiseptic. This may have helped him avoid bacterial and viral infections that were common among others who participated in his various military campaigns.

It is known that Napoleon distrusted doctors, and he preferred to wash his body from head to toe with men’s perfume on a daily basis to preserve his health and vitality. He apparently even consumed it on occasion, so convinced was he that it contained magical ingredients that could keep him young forever.

A Modern Diagnosis

In limited doses, Napoleon’s favorite cologne might have been harmless, or even beneficial. Colognes get their distinctive odors from essential oils found in flowers and other plants. These oils can have some positive effects, if taken in limited doses. They can boost the functioning of the immune system, reduce inflammation, help reduce anxiety, and promote healthy sleep, among other possible benefits.

Longwood House, St. Helena, where Napoleon died in 1821

Longwood House, St. Helena, where Napoleon died in 1821 ( Michel Dancoisne-Martineau / Wikimedia Commons

But when consumed in significant quantities, essential oils can turn toxic. Modern research has shown that high levels of essential oils can cause serious hormone imbalances, which can lead to seizures, hair loss, and the development of breasts in men. Studies have also revealed that excessive essential oil consumption can put a person at risk for gastrointestinal (stomach) cancer.

Napoleon suffered from all of these problems, Haris points out. In fact, the general consensus has been that Napoleon most likely died from stomach cancer and stomach ulcers. Napoleon’s physician, François Carlo Antommarchi, performed the original autopsy on his most famous patient, and he listed gastrointestinal cancer as the official cause of Napoleon’s death.

Death of Napoleon by Charles de Steuben

Death of Napoleon by Charles de Steuben ( Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Several modern researchers who’ve looked into Napoleon’s death have agreed with this conclusion. Haris’s work does not contradict or dispute this finding, but goes deeper by identifying the likely cause of the cancer.

Debunking the Arsenic Poisoning Theory

Another popular theory claimed that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning . This would mean he was intentionally poisoned and murdered by his enemies, most likely by the British guards who were assigned to watch over him during his exile on St. Helena.  British forces had defeated and captured Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and perhaps British leaders had decided it was time to speed his death.

This hypothesis wasn’t based purely on speculation. Hair samples were taken from Napoleon after his death, and testing revealed they contained high levels of arsenic. It is also known that Napoleon experienced symptoms of illness before his death that resembled those associated with arsenic poisoning.

But later research undermined this theory. Scientists have analyzed additional hair samples from Napoleon, taken at various times in his life, and found disturbing quantities of arsenic in all of them. Arsenic was frequently used in glues and dyes in the 18th and early 19th centuries when Napoleon lived, and it was easy to pick it up from the surrounding environment. Researchers studied hair samples taken from other individuals who lived in Europe at the time, and found they also contained elevated levels of arsenic.

Napoleon’s health might have been compromised by exposure to arsenic throughout his lifetime. But since he always had arsenic in his body, there is no reason to think anyone poisoned him intentionally.

The Moral of the Story: Emperors Don’t Make Good Doctors

Lacking any real medical knowledge, Napoleon used far more cologne than his body could safely handle. He inhaled it, absorbed it through his skin, and drank it in such substantial amounts that a tragic outcome was probably inevitable.

“Napoleon, a great patron of science, slowly poisoned himself,” Haris explained. “It seems he was either not aware of, or did not care about, the famous dictum of the 16th century physician Paracelsus who stated that ‘What is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison’.”

Haris is certain that he has uncovered the real cause of Napoleon’s death. So certain that he would be willing to present it in a court of law if asked.  

"There is no doubt in my view that Eau de Cologne was the main poison although co-exposure to other chemicals, including arsenic, must have contributed towards his ill health and ultimately his death from gastric cancer.”

If Dr. Haris is right, it means that one of history’s most celebrated and accomplished political and military leaders killed himself by foolishly trying to act as his own doctor.

Top image: Napoleon Bonaparte. Source: pict rider / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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