Napoleon’s Pharmacists


Of the making of books about Napoleon there is no end, and the centenary of his death (May 5) is not likely to pass without adding to the number, but a volume on Napoleon”s pharmacists still awaits treatment by the student in this field of historical research. There is no lack of material. Not that Napoleon had any faith in drugs. Even during his fatal illness at St. Helena he caused his doctors ceaseless anxiety by his petty tendency to offer any or every excuse for shirking regular doses. But he knew that others thought differently, and delighted to tell the tale of a certain bread pill administered to the Empress Marie Louise by Baron Corvisart, and its marvellous effects. He seems to have taken an intelligent interest in chemistry, and even to have studied its rudiments with Bouillon-Lagrange in his earlier days. W’hen he reorganized France after the Revolution he appreciated the collaboration of men like Chaptal, and gained their devotion and admiration by his own wonderful intellectual activity and physical energy.

Thus, many of these men became ardent Bonapartists, especially as the First Consul’s work of reconstruction enabled them to rebuild fortunes shattered by the Revolution. Young Caventou sacrificed his official post to rejoin the Emperor on his return from Elba. Cadet dc Gassicourt, Napoleon’s per sonal pharmacist, only survived his Imperial patron a few months. The best proof of the scientific worth of the men on whom the Emperor bestowed important official posts is that the immense majority of such appointments were confirmed when the monarchy was restored. His wars swept the whole youth of France into his armies; and as a result of the French system of military pharmacists holding commissioned rank, many of the profession served as noncombatant officers. The records, brief as they are, as a rule of their services and experiences, would alone form an attractive volume of the history of a hundred years ago.

Two of these young men have left us accounts of their adventures, and although these specially appeal to Britons as dealing with our “Peninsular War,” we believe that neither Sebastian Blaze’s romantic tale nor Antoine Fée’s narrative has ever been published in English. Writing of life behind the actual fighting line, they throw interesting sidelights on warfare.  Blaze, for instance, shows us that the callous and inhuman treatment of prisoners of war (he was a captive on the Spanish hulks) is no new thing.. Fée survived to an advanced age, and can still be remembered by some living Parisians. He told his tales of these old wars to his little grand-nephew, known to us as Henri Houssage, the great Napoleonic historian. Cadet de Gassicourt, too. left a volume of his war experiences with the Emperor in Germany and Austria.  Another subject would be Napoleon’s attempts at suicide. It seems a fact that he always carried poison on his person, and extremely probable that he made one, if not two, attempts at self-destruction. the dates being 1814 and 1815.—Chemist and Drugist. Sept. 1921

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No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.

— Adam Smith