Clearing Up the Past, Protecting the Present

Debate has raged on for years about whether or not Napoleon Bonaparte died of arsenic poising. Now scientists are unraveling the mystery by using nuclear analytical techniques on samples of the 18th century French Emperor's hair.

The topic of Napoleon's locks is just one of many on the agenda, when over 200 of the world's experts in nuclear analysis meet in Vienna 10-13 June 2003 for the International Conference on Isotopic and Nuclear Analytical Techniques for Health And Environment.

The conference will showcase over 100 examples of the diverse and wide-ranging use of nuclear analytical techniques in 61 countries. These include monitoring pesticides in milk, to finding answers to the sudden death of young males in northeast Thailand. Nuclear analytical techniques will also be featured as tools to monitor environmental pollution and an aid in the prevention and care of osteoporosis in China's elderly.

Nuclear applications can analyze trace elements in any kind of matter, making them effective tools to explore and solve pending historical puzzles. In an effort to shed light on the controversy surrounding Napoleon's death, hair cut before and after his death was examined to see if levels of arsenic concentration were high enough to support or disprove the theory that he was poisoned.

Using nuclear analysis as a tool to look at the past is just one of many items on the conference's agenda. A major focus of the conference is aimed at the present, particularly on how nuclear analysis can protect people's health and the environment.

Such was the case in a small fishing village in Minamata Bay, Japan. Analysis of villagers' hair using nuclear techniques revealed their diets were high in fish contaminated by mercury. Industrial dumping of the metal caused birth defects and up to 108 deaths in the village.

In his opening address, Mr. Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Applications, is expected to stress to conference participants that isotopic and nuclear techniques play an important role in our daily life. "They are an integral part of our socio-economic development. The exchange of information needs trustworthy and reliable international standards for measurement, as a basis for legal and economic decisions. Nuclear techniques are particularly suited to this."

So did Napoleon die from arsenic poisoning? Analysis of hair taken after his death showed elevated arsenic concentration. But so did tests of hair samples taken well before his death. This prompted the study's authors - Lin, Alber, and Henkelmann - to conclude that evidence so far does not support the "death-by-poison" theory. The higher levels of arsenic may have possibly come from an external source, such as the ribbons used to tie Napoleon's hair.

Last update: 11 November 2014