Napoleon had noticed that his arteries had fewer pulsations than those of other men. He made his chamber valet, Constant, and his first doctor, Corvisart, place their hands on his chest to feel his pulse, and verify that his heartbeats were scarcely perceptible.
His pulse was perfectly regular, but was nearly always under 60 pulsations. From thirty to thirty-five years old, according to Dr Halle, it went no higher than 50 to 55 pulsations.
In the Emperor’s autopsy report, drawn up by the English surgeons, it is noted that “the layer of cellular tissue which covers the chest was one inch thick”. The heart was also covered by a layer of fat. This would explain the difficulty in hearing the heartbeats, but Napoleon did not always carry such weight.
Even so, very early on, the contractility of his cardiac muscle was so faint that the most that could be felt was a slight vibratory flutter at the surface of his thorax. A slow pulse was the result, but, in itself, does it have a precise signification for pathologists?
According to Dr Saurel, who devoted his first thesis to this question, there are three varieties of slow pulses: the slow pulse which can be called physiological, because it is observed in subjects who present no health problems, such as a patient of Dr Vigouroux, whose pulse beat only twenty times a minute over a period of five years, without him suffering from anything in particular; or another patient, mentioned by Rendu, who had only 18 pulsations and was not in the least handicapped by it.
A second variety is the transitory slow pulse, which disappears with the cause which gave birth to it: a tumour, for example, which constricts the pneumogastric nerve.
The third type is characterised by a considerable reduction in the number of radial pulsations, with no accompanying heart irregularities, and by the appearance of fainting and epileptic type fits.
To which variety should we attach Napoleon’s slow pulse? In 1897, Dr Cabanes put this delicate question to Dr Huchard, who answered on 1 April.
“Page 790 of the Traite des nevroses (by Axenfeld et Huchard, 1883) this is what you can read:
“Epilepsy is not incompatible with the development of a strong intelligence. History tells us that Julius Caesar, Petrarch, Newton, Mahomet, Peter the Great and one of his grandsons, Paul I, our great actor Moliere, etc., were subject to convulsive attacks and dizzy spells. Napoleon I himself does not appear to have escaped this neurosis.”
This is only hypothetical, but in his Traite des maladies du coeur et des vaisseaux, signed with his name alone, Dr Huchard is a bit more explicit. In the chapter concerning the Stokes-Adams illness, characterised by “a permanently slow pulse, with fainting and epileptic fits”, we find:
“We must not confuse this permanently slow pulse with fainting fits, with the permanently slow pulse, almost physiological, of certain individuals, and which is accompagnied by no serious incident. Napoleon I is given as an example of this. He had no more than 40 pulsations, according to Corvisart, but it appears that he had a few epileptic type attacks throughout his life.”
We are none the wiser, because it remains to be seen whether the Emperor’s attacks were really epileptic, which would explain the slow pulse; but, as this slowness is also observed in certain subjects having no lesion, we still haven’t the absolute proof for which we are looking. However, it is a presumption to be added to the others and, as such, should not be neglected.
Dr Huchard also says in his letter to Dr Cabanes: “Napoleon must have been fairly neurotic, for he cried like a woman; but he wasn’t an hysteric. He had too much willpower for that, since hysterics don’t know how, or don’t want to have willpower.”
Napoleon was certainly neurotic, according to Dr Cabanes, who says that his excessive sensitivity showed an equally excessive irritablility.
In 1806, at the moment of leaving for the army, when he said goodbye to Josephine, his emotion became an attack of nerves. The attack was so strong, that it made him vomit. “We had to sit him down,” said a witness. “And make him take orange blossom water; he was crying a lot; this state lasted a quarter of an hour.”
Same attack of nerves and of the stomach in 1808, when he decides to divorce; throughout a whole night he is agitated and laments like a woman; he becomes tender, he embraces Josephine, he is weaker than she: “Poor Josephine, I shall never be able to leave you!” He takes her in his arms again, he wants her to stay, he is completely in the present feeling, she has to get undressed immediately and lie down beside him, and he cries over her: “Literally,” says Josephine. “He bathed the bed with his tears.”
After the abdication of Fontainebleau, facing the shouting of the crowd which greets him when he passes through Provence, he becomes frightened and doesn’t hide it.
In the Auberge de la Calade, he jumps and changes colour at the slightest sound; the commissionaries who visit his room several times, always find him in tears. He tires them with his worrying and his hesitations, says that the French Government wants to have him assassinated en route, refuses to eat at the table through fear of poison, thinks about escaping through a window.
Egoism has been mentioned. It is said that the Emperor was sensitive only to his own problems, that his sensitivity attacks were only a nervous reaction, a simple organic relaxation. He occasionally had something other than these almost mechanical attacks of sensitivity.
He wrote to Corvisart: “I beg you to go to see the Grand Judge and Citizen Lacepede. One of them has been ill for a week, which makes me fear that he will fall into the hands of some bad doctor; the other one has a wife who has been ill for a long time; give her good advice which can cure her; you will save the life of an estimable man whom I like a lot… ”
Another day, Grenadier Coignet, who tells the story himself, had been the victim of a poisoning attempt. A report was made to the First Consul, who ordered that two doctors be placed at night near this good fellow, and nurses day and night. A duty officer came, every morning, to enquire about the patient’s health.
The day before the Battle of Waterloo, Captain Elphinston had been seriously wounded and was lying on the battlefield in an almost desperate state; the Emperor, passing near him, sent his duty surgeon, to give him first aid for his wounds, which were bleeding profusely.
His natural kindness for the wounded went as far, this time, as giving wine from the silver bottle, which one of the chasseurs of the guard, in service to his person, always carried slung over his shoulder, in case there was a bivouac halt. This providential help saved the life of Captain Elphinston.
Later, Mr Elphinston, brother of the captain whom Napoleon had helped, paid his debt to the Emperor. He sent a chess set in beautifully worked ivory, a box of chips and index cards with an ivory basket and two magnificent bowls of very big dimensions, covered with open cut engraving, to Saint Helena. Each of these objects bore the imperial crown, eagles and the letter N.
At Saint Helena, Marchand, the faithful chamber valet, having fallen ill, Napoleon did not hesitate to climb the little staircase which led to his bedroom, to take him the drink recommended to relieve him.
To see signs of illness in these demonstrations of sensitivity, would appear to be unjust. Why not just admit that exceptional people do not always rise above average, and that they have a few human sides to them?
Sixth and last part tomorrow.