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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Napoleon and Doctor Verling on St Helena

Napoleon and Doctor Verling on St Helena. Ed. by J. David Markham. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2005. 178 pages. ISBN# 1844152502. Hardcover. 19.99/$34.80.

Napoleon and Doctor Verling on St Helena

Having sent the fallen Emperor Napoleon into exile on the isolated, wind-swept rock of St, Helena, the British needed to provide Napoleon with a doctor who could attend to the exile's medical needs, as well as provide testimony to Napoleon's good care and healthful situation and, preferably, serve as a source of information on what occurred in Napoleon's household. There was good reason to be concerned that Napoleon was treated well. Journalist and reformer William Cobbett announced that sending Napoleon into exile at St. Helena "would stink in the nostrils of the world for ages to come." Another critic saw Napoleon's exile as "a death sufficiently slow to be apparently natural."

Napoleon's first doctor in exile was the Irish naval surgeon Barry Edward O'Meara. Sir Hudson Lowe, the British governor of St. Helena and Napoleon's gaoler, had O'Meara removed from his position in 1818 for essentially becoming in his eyes an homme de l' Empereur and specifically for repeating conversations he was privy to among the British to Napoleon and his party. O'Meara, having left the island, wrote to the Admiralty claiming that Lowe had asked him to hasten Napoleon's death. In response the Admiralty removed the Irishman from the service on the theory that either O'Meara was lying or if true, O'Meara was neglectful not to have reported Lowe's request earlier. O'Meara eventually published an account of Napoleon's captivity and an indictment of Gov. Lowe, A Voice from St. Helena. Dr. James Roche Verling, born in 1787 in Ireland and graduated from Edinburgh University, had served as a surgeon with the army during the Peninsular War and was sent aboard the Northumberland, the ship that transported Napoleon to St. Helena, as surgeon to the Ordnance. It was on this long voyage that Verling first made the acquaintance of members of Napoleon's party. Verling was picked by Lowe to replace O'Meara.

Napoleon refused to see any doctor sent by Lowe who would not agree to certain stipulations, which included, within the limits of the doctor's honor (by which Napoleon specifically meant his physician was free to report any talk of an attempted escape by Napoleon, but was to keep other conversations confidential), not to act as a spy for the governor. Count Montholon, in making proposals to Verling explicitly stated that Verling "would not be required to do anything which might compromise [Verling] before any tribunal." Verling for his part felt that "the only mode I know of obtaining [Napoleon's acceptance], and of which the governor was aware, seem now to throw a shade of suspicion upon my character."

Dr. John Stokoe, another naval surgeon, was chosen instead. Gov. Lowe instructed Verling to accompany Stokoe on his visits to Napoleon, a situation, which would undoubtedly further raise Napoleon's suspicions of Verling as a creature of the Governor. Stokoe, agreeing to Napoleon's stipulations, quickly fell afoul of the governor, was court-martialed and forced to leave the service. Verling had been put in the unenviable position of having to report on Stokoe's visits to Longwood to the Governor. Verling became tangled in the petty wrangling between Lowe and Napoleon. In a journal entry of 22 January 1819, for example, Verling reports that Lowe informed him that Stokoe had been told by someone at Longwood that Dr. O'Meara had informed the surgeon of the Favorite that had he [O'Meara] followed Lowe's instructions Napoleon would have been dead by then. Lowe desired that Verling report to him any such discussions he overheard at Longwood. Ten days later Lowe was still pestering Verling about the incident. As a professional man Verling couldn't be pleased being involved the schoolgirl squabbling of the two parties or being placed in a situation where either his career or honor would be compromised. Indeed, as a reader, one gets a great feeling of sadness that so much energy was expended by all parties on what were ultimately such petty matters.

Interest turned again to Verling to serve as Napoleon's physician. Verling had continued to serve as doctor to the Bertrands and Montholons. Verling could not have been too pleased to be tapped for such a sensitive and apparently dangerous position. Obviously no good could come from taking a position that would put him between the rock and the hard place of the Governor and Napoleon. In the end Dr. Verling never did serve as Napoleon's physician though he did continue to serve those around the former Emperor.

Eventually Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, a Corsican anatomist selected by Napoleon's mother and uncle, was sent to St. Helena to serve as physician to Napoleon, freeing Verling from an untenable position. Of Antommarchi, Napoleon opined, "I would give him my horse to dissect, but I would not trust him with the cure of my own foot." With Antommarchi's arrival however, Verling was able to quit St. Helena and return to Britain, continuing his medical career.

The original journal had passed down in the Verling family until it came into the possession of a nephew who was a naval surgeon. This nephew left the journal on board a ship shortly before he died. The journal was later presented to Napoleon III. In 1915 a transcript of the journal was made and a copy deposited in the Bodleian Library, where J. David Markham first read it. According to Markham, Verling's journal is the last major document concerning Napoleon's exile on St. Helena that remained unpublished.

Dr. Verling's journal reads more as an aide-mmoire against the possibility of some future legal proceeding that might arise in consequence of his duties than as a record of his inner thoughts. One gets the distinct feeling that Verling would rather not have been placed in this circumstance at all. Verling doesn't record much of his own feelings or impressions but records instead what was said or written to him by those in the British administration on the island and by the French at Longwood. Verling was painfully aware that being physician to Napoleon held "more prospects of ultimate injury than benefit." The journal doesn't include any great revelations, but gives the reader another impression of Napoleon's final days.

Verling was obviously reluctant to place himself in any situation where he could be accused of favoring the Emperor's party or acting in their interest. Verling knew it was in his interest to avoid both sin and the near occasion of sin. At one point he sends back to Madame Bertrand a tea service she had given him, going at once to Gov. Lowe to inform him of the gift and that he had returned it. Verling would not accept a blanket pass from Lowe to attend to the inhabitants at Longwood, requesting from the Governor specific orders to attend his patients.

What ever Lowe's opinion of Verling, which at times seemed strained and at other times formally correct, he at one point was writing to Lord Bathurst, the British official responsible for Napoleon's captivity, of his concerns that Verling was Irish and Catholic. Lowe described Verling as not only "fully competent" as a physician, but "activated by right principles." Lowe praised particularly "the resistance [Verling] has shown to all design on the part of the persons at Longwood." While Verling did not quite act the spy, he made sure to keep Lowe informed of any relations he had with the French. Verling's intentions seem to be to protect himself and he was quick to report all matter of things he heard while treating the Montholons and the Bertrands. Verling apparently had the expectation of returning to Europe after three years serving with the Ordinance and by March 1819 that period was almost at an end. This light at the end of the tunnel might well have been a deciding factor in his reluctance at that point to become Napoleon's physician.

Naturally part of the journal concerns purely medical matters. Reading of the treatment of Napoleon and his party leads one to wonder whether, intentional or not, the treatment given didn't hasten Napoleon's demise. Napoleon's party seemed to be all being dosed with mercury in various forms, a common enough treatment at the time. Frequently prescribed was a medicine called "blue pill." One recipe for the pill included mercury, licorice root, rosewater, honey, sugar, and rose petals. One pill taken two or three times a day could deliver nearly 9,000 times the amount of mercury that is deemed safe for human consumption by current health standards; mercury itself is a potential neurotoxin. Calomel another compound Napoleon and his party were being prescribed calomel (Hydrargyri Chloridum Mite), which is also a mercuric substance, often prescribed as a laxative and a diuretic.

Mercury was used to treat a range of ailments including syphilis, apoplexy, worms, pregnancy, tuberculosis, toothaches, and constipation. Mercury is "easily absorbed in the body, travels within to the kidneys, poisons the blood-filtering structures and causes renal failure. It is bound easily to the sulphur atoms of proteins and inactivates them. Since a large class of enzymes in our system are sulphur-proteins, they lose their catalytic activity upon binding to mercury compounds. This poisoning inactivates diverse processes in the body - food digestion and absorption, growth and development, sensory perception, nerve conduction and brain function." Mercury poisoning can cause insomnia, tremor, and attacks of rage and in some forms can cause violent gastrointestinal irritation. The last could alone have hastened Napoleon's death from stomach cancer.

Markham includes with the journal a number of letters concerning Verling on St. Helena from British archives. Some of these letters are versions of letters Verling transcribed in his journal. Frequently there will be differences between the letters themselves and the versions given by Verling, which makes for interesting comparison. To the journal and letters Markham has added an introduction discussing Napoleon's last days in France, his journey to St. Helena and information on his doctors on the island. Also included are capsule sketches of the chief individuals mentioned in the text, as well as the principal locations on the island. Illustrations of many of the principals, as well as scenes of St. Helena are included.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2005