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Cancer, not arsenic, likely killed Napoleon

SCIENCE FILE

January 20, 2007|From the Associated Press

Napoleon Bonaparte died a more prosaic death than once thought, succumbing to stomach cancer rather than arsenic poisoning, according to new research.

Theories that the French emperor was poisoned with arsenic have abounded since 1961, when an analysis of his hair showed elevated levels of the toxic element. But that element could have come from drugs used to treat the cancer.

But the latest review of his 1821 autopsy report, published in the January issue of Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, concludes that the official cause of death -- stomach cancer -- is correct.

The autopsy describes a tumor in his stomach that was 4 inches long. Comparing that description to modern cases, Dr. Robert M. Genta of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and an international team of researchers surmised that a growth so extensive could not have been a benign stomach ulcer.

Further analysis suggested that his stomach cancer had reached a stage that is virtually incurable even with modern medical technology. People with similar cancers today usually die within a year.

The autopsy and other historical sources indicate that the rotund French leader had lost about 33 pounds in the last few months of his life, another sign of stomach cancer. His stomach also contained a dark material similar to coffee grounds, a sign of extensive bleeding in the digestive tract. The massive bleeding was probably the immediate cause of death, Genta and his colleagues concluded.

Genta and his team speculate that Napoleon's cancer was triggered by an ulcer.

He could have been infected by the ulcer-causing bacterium \o7Helicobacter pylori \f7during one of his military campaigns, when a diet high in salted meats and low in fresh vegetables would have made him particularly susceptible.

Napoleon died at age 52 on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he was banished after his defeat at Waterloo.

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