How a Neurosurgeon Brought Down Napoleon

Russian general's remarkable brain surgery saved his life, resulted in visionary strategy
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 30, 2015 8:06 AM CDT
How a Neurosurgeon Brought Down Napoleon
On a detail of a Jean-Baptiste Debret's 19th century painting, Napoleon Bonaparte is on the right.   (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

As Napoleon Bonaparte's forces moved toward Moscow in the autumn of 1812, Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov burned his own city, fled east, and left Moscow open to invaders. But what some supposed were the actions of a madman instead proved visionary, as Napoleon's troops couldn't handle the early and brutal Russian winter and soon abandoned Moscow for Paris. Kutuzov's decision to flee—rather than face Napoleon and almost certain defeat—ultimately saved Russia, and researchers are now looking at the role French neurosurgeon Jean Massot may have had on history. In the Neurosurgical Focus, the researchers recount Kutuzov's "seemingly two mortal wounds": He was twice shot in the head while fighting the Turks in 1774 and 1788, with the first bullet likely causing front lobe damage that spurred erratic behavior; one general wrote of his "weakened mental strength."

After two years of what a press release calls "medical sleuthing," the researchers write of the possible "unsung hero of this saga": Massot, who "used his expertise perhaps twice" to save Kutuzov's life. While exactly what happened to the man's brain will likely remain a mystery (it hasn't been examined since the autopsy in April 1813), the researchers for the first time gathered details about Massot and the "skilled neurosurgical care" he provided. As lead researcher Mark C. Preul puts it, "We wanted to find out what really happened," and he and his team concluded that "the best neurosurgical technique of the day seems to have been overlooked as a considerable part of Kutuzov's success." Fusion highlights this line from Massot himself: "If we had not been the witnesses ... we would have considered the story about Kutozov’s wounds a fairy tale." (It turns out Napoleon's Waterloo didn't come at Waterloo.)

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