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Dean George is the Marketing Specialist and Content Creator for Dental Insurance
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Licked by Licorice? Napoleon Meets his Dental Waterloo

Sep 16, 2014

By Dean George

Earlier this summer I read a couple of historical novels involving an American wayward adventurer named Ethan Gage who worked with – and later against - Napoleon Bonaparte during the latter’s invasion of Egypt in the late 1700’s.

Licked by Licorice

Admittedly I knew little about “Boney.” I mean, for years I thought Neapolitan ice cream was a dessert named in Napoleon’s honor and his boyhood home on the island of Corsica was owned by Chevrolet.

Then earlier this month in Agent Straight-Talk we reported that this same renowned military strategist and fabled conqueror of much of Europe had to be physically restrained on the ground (admittedly a short distance since he stood only 5’6”) while having a wisdom tooth extracted. Apparently neither his invading army nor anesthesia was available to alleviate his discomfort. To say that his first known dental operation didn’t go well would be an understatement.

“I beg you (sic) pardon!" exclaimed friend Betsy Balcombe upon hearing Napoleon recount the procedure. “You are complaining about the pain caused by an operation of such little importance! You, who assisted at countless battles, and escaped a shower of bullets, you who got injured so many times! I am ashamed of you. But anyway, give me that tooth!”

If any of you think I’m obsessed with France, let me assure you my only personal experience with anything French is the salad dressing. And I once saw a movie with French actress Juliette Binoche. Or was it Gerard Depardieu? 

Anyway, did you know that “Nap” was so meticulous with his oral hygiene that he carried a toothbrush with him everywhere, and once took time to brush his teeth the morning between two separate battles?

Bonaparte’s teeth were so noticeable that no less an 18th century celebrity than the writer Alexandre Dumas, the author of the The Count of Monte Cristo and the inventor of The Three Musketeers bar, wrote, “He had the same pretension for his teeth; indeed, his teeth were nice, but they were not as splendid as his hands.”

We’ll leave the description of Napoleon’s hands in Dumas’ hands because this is a dental blog. We’re only interested in the little general’s teeth.

“All his teeth were beautiful, strong and well-arranged,” wrote Napoleon biographer Frederic Masson. “He would carefully pick his teeth with a toothpick made of boxwood, then he would brush them for a long time with a brush soaked in opiate, floss with thin coral, and rinse his mouth with a mixture of brandy and fresh water. Finally, he would clean his tongue with a silver scraper of silver gilt or tortoiseshell.”

Napoleon carried his toothbrush and toiletries in a small chest or box known as his “campaign casket.” Like the old American Express commercial, apparently he would never leave home to invade another country without it. 

We’ve written a lot about toothbrushes in this blog, and the “Napman” was pretty fond of his. His favorite was a gift from General Bertrand, a loyal aide-camp. The handle was bright red with an imperial “N” carved on it, the bristles were made of wild boar hair, and it had a screwed head that was interchangeable.

How attached was Napoleon to his toothbrush and campaign casket? Before dying, he bequeathed his “golden dental kit” to his son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte.

Despite Napoleon’s far flung military campaigns throughout Italy, Egypt, Spain and Russia, he always traveled in style. After he returned home to become emperor of France and during one of their ongoing wars with Britain in 1806, Napoleon had delivered to himself 52 boxes of opiate toothpaste worth 306 francs, and 15 dozen toothpicks made of boxwood and ivory.

With the exception of the wisdom tooth extraction performed while serving his second stint in exile, Napoleon took such good care of his teeth that the only service his personal dentist Jean-Joseph Dubois-Foucou provided from 1806 – 1813 was routine cleaning of the Emperor’s teeth.

It wasn’t until Napoleon was exiled the second time that he began suffering oral health issues. Other than his habit of invading foreign countries and pillaging and plundering, Napoleon did have one habit over the years that led to the Waterloo of his teeth.  Licorice. Yes, Nappy liked his sweet black licorice and once he began his exile, there really wasn’t much for him to do but indulge that passion.

It is unknown today whether it was his affection for the chewy, sweet candy that led to the rapid decline of his oral health, but upon his exile his once perfect teeth had blackened and he experienced more teeth problems and gum disease from 1817 until his death in May of 1821.

Some accounts allege that Napoleon was slowly poisoned with arsenic from the time of his second exile on the island of St. Helena. A Swedish dentist and biologist, Dr. Sven Forshufvud, determined after reviewing his medical records years later that Napoleon was infected with 28 of the 31 symptoms found in chronic arsenic poisoning.

The mercury and calomel prescribed by the Irish doctor treating Napoleon for scurvy during his final years certainly did not help his dental problems the final years of his life. We may never know what actually killed Napoleon and led to his dental downfall, but what we do know is that visiting the dentist twice a year can help prevent a similar Waterloo to your teeth.

Our plans don’t offer benefits if you are exiled to an island, but we do have excellent coverage available in the 48 contiguous states. See for yourself by clicking here. Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk, and follow us on FacebookTwitterPinterestGoogle+, and LinkedIn for more oral health adventures!

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Copyright 2014, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC  

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