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Stomach cancer was Napoleon's final Waterloo, tests reveal

Last Updated: Thursday, January 18, 2007 | 2:17 PM ET

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was done in by stomach cancer, not poisoning, new research suggests.

The cause of Napoleon's death is controversial. The thinking that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic gained popularity after tests in 1961 suggested his hair showed high levels of the element.

Modern pathology tests reviewing Napoleon's 1821 autopsy report have concluded that stomach cancer was responsible for his death.Modern pathology tests reviewing Napoleon's 1821 autopsy report have concluded that stomach cancer was responsible for his death.

Now, American, Swiss and Canadian researchers have applied modern pathology tests to review his 1821 autopsy report.

In the January issue of the journal, Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, a research team concluded the official cause of death — stomach cancer — is correct.

Autopsy records described a tumour in his stomach that was more than 10 centimetres long, with hardened lymph nodes around the lesion that suggested stomach cancer.

The team then analyzed tissue from more than 100 patients who were recently diagnosed with stomach cancer as a comparison and applied indicators of how advanced the cancers were to Napoleon's case.

"The method that we used in our study was to take the medical science, take the historical evidence and to take tissue from today's patients," said Inti Zlobec, a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal who co-authored the study.

"Altogether, this was strongly suggestive of stomach cancer and of advanced stage stomach cancer."

Napoleon's case terminal

Today, about 80 per cent of patients with early stage stomach cancer are expected to live past five years. For those with stomach cancers as advanced as Napoleon's, the probability of living up to five years is less than 20 per cent, Zlobec said.

Napoleon, born in Corsica, ruled France in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He died at age 52 on May 5, 1821 on the island of St. Helena, where he had been banished by the British after his defeat at Waterloo.

"This analysis suggests that, even if the emperor had been released or escaped from the island, his terminal condition would have prevented him from playing a further major role in the theatre of European history," said Dr. Robert Genta, a professor of pathology and internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas and the study's senior author

Napoleon's autopsy and historical records of physicians who were present at the autopsy also lacked reports indicating the characteristic features of arsenic poisoning, the team said. Poisoning cannot be completely ruled out, they acknowledged.

With files from the Associated Press

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CBC interview with Inti Zlobec, a doctoral student at McGill University who co-authored the study. (Runs: 4:04)
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