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August 9, 2017


At a recent family reunion, my niece, a writer and editor, gave me a book entitled “Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids,” published by Phil Mason, an Englishman, in 2010. I have perused his offering since our reunion and here share two of many small events that may have changed history, oddball if tiny events which may have had big impacts that I, for one, have never heard about, and which, in a rather paraphrased form, I offer in this post.

Napoleon. As all of us must know by now, Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant French general who was rarely if ever defeated on the battlefield, and as we must also know, he lost the Battle of Waterloo to the Allies led by the Duke of Wellington, an Englishman. Historians write that he lost that famous battle due to the last minute arrival of the Prussian army, but what they do not write about is why Napoleon did not win that battle before the Prussian reinforcements arrived. Had he done so, and a letter from the Duke of Wellington to his brother (“I was never so near being beat” suggests that Napoleon was winning before the Prussians showed up and saved the day), the history of Europe and of the world would likely have been very different than the one we have.8

To contextualize this event, the Industrial Revolution was just a few years away in England and we were just finishing up the War of 1812 we were having with England. Perhaps the English should have left the so-called “Napoleonic Wars” and other such adventures before and after Napoleon to continental Europe while they sat on their island and dreamed up steam power and other such innovations leading to refinements in the Industrial Revolution. While we are guessing with alternative historical outcomes, it may be that had England’s preoccupation with European wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries not happened, we Americans would still be bowing to English royalty. If thousands of Redcoats had been in colonial America and not in Europe, it’s quite possible that Washington would have been hanged and the revolution lost, so from our point of view, however indirectly, Napoleon was our friend. He kept the Redcoats busy some 3,000 miles away and our revered forefathers avoided the noose.

So how did this brilliant general lose the Battle of Waterloo? Mason suggests a tiny event that may have turned the tide of the battle – and history. Napoleon was afflicted with hemorrhoids and had an attack the morning of the battle, a very painful attack, especially when riding a horse, as the reader can well imagine. Typically Napoleon before battles would survey the battlefield, its terrain etc., before engaging in a battle. The morning of the Battle of Waterloo he was hurting so badly that he did not survey the battlefield and held up the engagement until 11:20 A.M. (which gave the Prussian reinforcements time to come in later in the day and turn the tide). Mason thinks that this attack of hemorrhoids and the delay in starting the battle may have changed history from the one we know to one we can never know. He may be right. Alternative history, like present day alternative facts, has no base in reality.

Marx. It is not just hemorrhoids that may have changed world history. I knew that Karl Marx was afflicted with painful “boils” during his lifetime but I did not connect such an affliction with communism. I see the possible connection now. Mason reports that medical historian Sam Schuster wrote in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2007 that there was credible evidence that Karl Marx suffered from a skin disease which can create a severe psychological disorder, one that can foster feelings of exploitation and alienation. Schuster the researcher theorizes that Marx’s affliction could very likely have given a significant push to the direction Marx took which led to his invention of the theory that underpins communism.

The technical name for Marx’s condition is hidradenitis suppurativa, a disorder of the sweat glands that produces boils and pus-oozing spots. Research does not indicate when this condition first appeared with Marx, but the symptoms were in evidence by 1864, when Marx was 46 years old and researching in the British Museum in London for his major work, Das Kapital, an effort that lays out the conceptual theory of communism, published in 1867.

So, per Mason, could it have been that all the misery, exasperation and feeling of oppression from these bodily ills that could have, as the medical researcher Schuster suggests, created the state of mind that dreamed up a system of politics which was to plague hundreds of millions of people’s lives in the century to come and the century afterward – see the current result in North Korea.

I don’t know (and neither does anyone else) what our history and that of the world would be today if not for hemorrhoids and boils on people who had the power to change history. Perhaps Mason is grasping at straws to finding something offbeat to write about, but I think not. If Napoleon had surveyed the battlefield of Waterloo and defeated the Allied army before the Prussians arrived, if Marx had not been painfully inflicted with boils and sores that made him mad at the world, who can know what the world would look like today?

I always write that history is linear and that we should be guided but not captive to history. Mason’s effort tells us that little things can have deep and everlasting effects, and these two examples tell us something else – that if the state of the medical arts we have today had been available to these two giants of 19th century history, it is altogether possible that our history would be one that no one today can know, something to ponder with present day American politicians who are opposed to expansion of medical research and programs such as Medicare which, if history is a guide, could be responsible for an angry 21st century Marxist or fascist and the end of our democracy.

O.K., that may be a stretch, but so was the framework laid out in Das Kapital at the time. What’s a “stretch?”  Castros, Maoists, Leninists and Stalinists may have a different view than that held by those of us entrenched in democratic capitalism today. Communism is not currently in vogue, and democratic capitalism as now practiced is also headed for the dustbin of history unless reformed, so what will history look like 50 years from now? I have no clue.      GERALD       E










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