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Napolean wasn't poisoned, poor diet killed him

February 12, 2008 11:56 IST

Putting to rest a 200-year-old mystery about what killed Napoleon Bonaparte, scientists claim to have found evidence that the French Emperor didn't die from arsenic poising as some had speculated.

After being defeated by the British in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the St Helena Island where he died after six years at the age of 52. Some arsenic found in 1961 in his hair sparked rumours of poisoning.

But the researchers at Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics have re-examined his hair and found that there was actually no significant increase in arsenic levels in the French Emperor's last years.

"It is not arsenic poisoning that killed Napoleon at St Helena," the National Institute of Nuclear Physics said.

The institute's researchers -- Dr Ettore Fiorini and Dr Ezio Previtali -- and Angela Santagostino of University of Milan carried out the study at a small nuclear reactor at the University of Pavia before coming to the conclusion, The Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday.

The team compared samples held by French and Italian museums, dating from when Napoleon was a boy in Corsica; during his exile on the Island of Elba; on the day of his death (May 5, 1821) on the Island of Saint Helena; and the day after his death.

Samples taken from the King of Rome (Napoleon's son) in the years 1812, 1816, 1821, and 1826, and samples from the Empress Josephine, collected upon her death in 1814, were also analysed, along with hair from ten people.

The hairs were studied using 'neutron activation', a test which does not destroy samples and provides extremely precise results, even for small samples. In the radiation within the reactor, elements in the hair are made radioactive and, from the resulting spectrum of radioactivity, its composition can be deduced.

All the hair samples contained traces of arsenic but the samples from 200 years ago contained up to 100 times more than those from today: Napoleon's hair had an average arsenic level of around ten parts per million whereas the arsenic level in the hair samples from today was around one tenth of a part per one million.

But the levels in the French Emperor's hair were typical of those seen at the beginning of the 19th people and significantly, the arsenic levels when Napoleon was a boy and during his final days in St Helena were similar.

The work provides indirect support for the suggestion that Napoleon died of stomach cancer linked to a poor diet, according to the institute.

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