‘Death had marvellously improved him’ – Frank McNally on the Irish doctors who had the last word on Napoleon

The man behind the mask

The Donegal-born army surgeon Walter Henry (1791-1860) met Napoleon only twice, and in rather contrasting circumstances. On the first occasion, the emperor was still alive. On the second, he had just died. But strange to say, it was as a dead man that Henry found him more impressive.

The doctor had been posted to Saint Helena in 1817. Along with officers of his regiment, he was soon granted an interview with the island’s celebrity guest and was disappointed to find him “unsightly and obese”, looking more like a “friar” than the military hero of renown.

When they were next in the same room, however, four years later, all had changed. “Death had marvellously improved the appearance of Napoleon,” Henry recalled in his memoirs, “and everyone exclaimed when the face was exposed: ‘How very beautiful’.”

No-one present had ever seen “a finer or more regular and placid countenance,” he continued. “The beauty of the Italian features was of the highest kind; whilst the exquisite serenity of their expression was in the most striking contrast with the recollection of his great actions, impetuous character and turbulent life.”


The official autopsy report, which Henry also wrote, was less romantic. It noted the fatal mass of cancerous tissue in the patient’s stomach; that the whole surface of the body was “deeply covered in fat”, up to “two inches” thick in places; and yet that it was also “slender and effeminate” with “scarcely any hair”.

In a detail that must have appealed to British propagandists, Henry further recorded: “The penis and testicles were very small, and the whole genital system seemed to exhibit a physical cause for the absence of sexual desire and the chastity which had been stated to have characterised the deceased.”

This was the basis for subsequent theories that Napoleon had suffered adult onset of a rare condition better known for causing obesity and sexual infantilism in male children.

In his book Napoleon Immortal, James Kemble quoted Henry’s report and surmised that sometime between his triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz and the doomed invasion of Russia, Napoleon fell victim to a disorder that may have influenced the course of history:

“At forty, at the summit of his career, I think he undoubtedly became the subject of Froelich’s disease,” Kemble wrote. “His pituitary gland failed him prematurely, and the failure of that tiny gland changed the events of all his future years.”

Walter Henry was one of “The Irish Five”, as Denis Wilson called them in the subtitle of his booklet “Napoleon’s Doctors on St Helena”, to which most of the foregoing is owed.

Another of the quintet, who recorded the last impression of the emperor in a more literal way, was Galway man Francis Burton. Born in Tuam, Burton too became a British army surgeon, posted to Saint Helena in March 1821 in time to be also present at Napoleon’s post-mortem.

Like Henry, he was deeply impressed by the face of the dead man – “the most striking I had ever beheld” – and persuaded Saint Helena’s governor that an impression of Napoleon’s head should be preserved in Plaster of Paris.

This job should have been overseen by Bonaparte’s official physician, fellow Corsican Francois Carlo Antommarchi. But the plaster had to be fetched from the far side of the mountainous island, by boat, and when it arrived 40 hours later, was of poor quality. So Antommarchi decided the task was impossible and instead left it to Burton.

No more than the plaster, the model – two days dead by then – was not in good condition either. A lieutenant who entered the room where the Irishman and his French assistants worked, found “the stench was so horrible that I could not remain”. Even so, Burton persisted and did such a good job that Antommarchi was soon claiming responsibility.

In the meantime, the cast had been left to dry in the death chamber, from which the front half was taken by a Count and Countess Bertrand, part of Napoleon’s retinue in exile. Despite repeated appeals, Burton never regained possession of it before his early death in 1828.

The scoundrelly Antommarchi had by then published a book “Les derniers moments de Napoléon”, in which he claimed to have made it. He later took advantage of Burton’s demise, in presumed collusion with the Bertrands, by fabricating copies of the mask for sale.

Burton was posthumously vindicated by a voice form the Graves – a family of that name. As well as being an uncle of the famous explorer Richard Burton, he had also been related to an illustrious Anglo-Irish dynasty whose latter-day descendants include the writer of I, Claudius and Goodbye to All That.

An earlier Robert Graves was a medical professor at Trinity College, who in 1835 delivered a lecture in Dublin, titled pointedly: “The mask of Napoleon not made by Antommarchi.” It took decades more for the word to get out. But by the 20th century, Napoleon’s biographers were at last crediting Burton for the work and the other Corsican had been metaphorically unmasked.