An raibh a fhios agat?  Did you know?

The Emperor’s Toothbrush

Published on 9th Feb 2023 at 08:04 by Antóin Ó Lochraigh

The word ‘Emperor’ conjures up all kinds of permutations which we might associate with latter day holders of the title or indeed figures from the distant past. Perhaps when we siphon back through the pages of history, we are drawn to the enigmatic but all persuasive character that was Napoleon Bonaparte. The ‘Little Corporal’ as he was endearingly nicknamed by his soldiers finds his way into our story via the elongated path of the historical highway manifested by way of some of his personal possessions bequeathed to a certain Dr.Barry Edward O’Meara who administered to Napoleon on St. Helena. The personal effects along with the story, I followed which in turn brought me to the inner sanctum of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland on Kildare Street in Dublin, most recently.


There in the company of the ‘keeper of collections’ I came to know of the tale of the ‘Toothbrush’ and the other artefacts that form part of the story. The pages of history recount the travails of the ‘Little Corporal’ and his second banishment to what became his final battle on the island of St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo. It was here that he became better acquainted with O’Meara and entrusted to him the personal effects that we can now cast an inquisitive eye upon. The good doctor had requested that Napoleon receive proper medical attention for which he was subsequently discredited by the authorities and was not allowed to practise. However, he did succeed in establishing himself as a dentist in London using a wisdom tooth of the ‘Little Corporal’ by way of advertising by placing it in his shop window, as it transpired.

Peter Hicks gives his take on this period in the tale of the emperor and is perhaps critical of others who have in his opinion not given a balanced account when applying their respective analysis. There appears to be fair traction given to the autobiographical recount of O’Meara himself in Hick’s paper. The thrust of the story appears to centre around the fact that O’Meara had become embroiled in the fact that there were two opposing sides pontificating on the health of Napoleon. On the one hand the French authorities were lamenting the fact that their dear leader was not in the full rigours of good health and wanted him repatriated, while their English counterparts were enunciating that he was in fact in good health and would remain under their jurisdiction. O’Meara found himself stuck in the middle of the impasse. But first a bit more on the good doctor.

(Photo:) The Royal College of Physicians

Barry O ‘Meara attended lectures of a doctor Leake to whom he was apprenticed, at Trinity College Dublin. He also attended the College of Surgeons in Dublin. As to his actual medical credentials there might be some clarification required. However, it is the case that he was appointed as assistant surgeon to the British armies 62nd regiment in 1804, according to Hick’s. After many travails and having seen service in a number of different theatres of war O’Meara found himself serving for three years as assistant surgeon on the ship Victorious from where he received high praise for his attending to the wounded in very stressful conditions, under the lead of surgeon Dr. Baird, Hick’s continues. Ultimately, he found himself dispatched to the West Indies. It was however after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo that brought the paths of the two main protagonists of our story together. It appears that the emperor’s own physician a certain Louis-Pierre Maingault refused to accompany him into exile on St. Helena and hence O’Meara was directed to look after him.

Napoleon was apparently so impressed by O’Meara and his ability to speak fluent Italian that saw him request O’Meara as his personal physician. However, the pressures being applied by the French and British had placed O’Meara in an impossible position as both demanded that their concerns be adhered to. The island at this time was under the direction of governor Hudson Lowe a fellow Irishman. There were discussions going on between the two rival parties to with Lowe was totally oblivious. O’Meara it appears had been in contact with the admiralty in London by way of letters unbeknownst to Lowe which again only led to a deterioration between the two men. The recipient of these letters a Mr. Finlaison in turn passed these letters to his superiors the contents of which referred to the health of the emperor and conditions on the island.

In the interim the squabbling continued between the French and the British as to the ultimate destination for the incarcerated emperor. O’Meara by this time tried to mend fences with Lowe by opening avenues of communication with the governor but to no avail. Lowe wanted rid of him. Having administered to Napoleon for approximately three years O’Meara’s position was becoming more untenable. However, what is not contested is that Napoleon’s health in reality, was all the while deteriorating. In the interim O’Meara became more immersed in all matters French on the island totally distancing himself from Lowe which only further strained relations between the two men; so much so that O’Meara offered his resignation. This was not accepted by his immediate superior.Indeed, the temperature was raised a degree or two higher by the later assertion of the good doctor that the governor had indeed asked him essentially to ‘shorten Napoleon’s life’. The admiralty in London attempted to diffuse the situation by appealing to Lowe to simply put up with O’Meara lest the health of Napoleon suffer permanently. In the interim Lowe’s physician and friend, a Dr.Gourgaud had arrived in London and asserted to the authorities that Napoleon was in fine fettle. Ultimately, this resulted in O’Meara being arrested and escorted off the island in August 1818.

Napoleon died some three years later on the 5th of May 1821. As it transpired, O’Meara was the first to have his presentation of the life of Napoleon on St. Helena published. While from his perspective O’Meara made a financial windfall from the enterprise, he also was at pains to point out that the scurrilous attacks on Napoleon was something that he couldn’t countenance. In his treatise ’Napoleon in Exile’, he pointedly attacks the persona of Lowe in no uncertain manner, so much so that Lowe considered taking legal action. Despite running into financial difficulties associated with the publication initially, O’Meara secured financial salvation ultimately, from his connections in France who supported the enterprise. There was also the small matter of marrying into wealth as it were with his marriage to Theodosia Boughton/Beauchamp. She would die some years later leaving O’Meara in an even more solid financial position. So, from facing potential ruin initially because of his support for Napoleon, he ultimately found himself in a position of financial security. But was O’Meara’s literary prowess on the life of Napoleon on St. Helena merely a financial adventure

(Photo:) Toothbrush, snuff glass and a piece of paper which remains unintelligible apparently.

One might glean from the words of one Daniel O’Connell who met O’Meara in July 1823 and was quite taken by the man and was impressed by his eulogizing of Napoleon. Indeed, O’Meara would maintain the French connection with his association with Joseph, the elder brother of the emperor. But it was the publication of O’Meara’s book in 1822 following the death of Napoleon that would cause the greatest turmoil for the good doctor. It would appear from the testimonies of people like O’Connell and others that O’Meara’s interest in Napoleon was quite genuine and affectionate. This obviously was in stark contrast to his dislike for his fellow Irishman Lowe. Lowe, a Galwegian, would die in penury it appears whilst always maintaining his innocence in his treatment of Napoleon, if you would.

(Photo:) Toothbrush and case.


For O’Meara it was paramount that he could ultimately clear his good name which had been sullied from the fall-out of his time on St. Helena and his banishment from his chosen profession. Indeed, his health in turn began to suffer. That notwithstanding, he appears to have been trenchant in his view of the treatment of Napoleon as having been less than appropriate. The testament of others would appear to suggest as we have already outlined that his concerns were from the perspective of a genuine nature. His misjudgement if one can call it that is to have taken the wrong course by alienating himself from Lowe.

Whether that was perceived as an act of insubordination is not quite clear. His punishment was dismissal. His fondness for the good life brought on the advent of gout which would eventually add to his medicinal troubles resulting in his early demise. He is buried in St. Mary’s Church Paddington Green in London albeit the exact date of his departure is uncertain. He requested that the title of his book, “A voice from St. Helena” be inscribed on his tombstone. It can be argued that both men paid a high price as a result of the intrigue that surrounded Napoleon on St. Helena. To add further intrigue to our tale is the fact that Lowe, according to Peter Hick’s was appointed as governor of St. Helena by the East India company. The tale might be a trifle difficult to unravel but at least we have the trinkets of the emperor to keep us amused. O’Meara along with the main protagonists in our story throw an interesting light on the final days of the emperor to whom Hick’s in his final analysis paints Napoleon in a less than favourable light. Napoleon, famous or infamous still demands our attention.

Antóin Ó Lochraigh
Tour Guide, Storyteller, Bard & Soloist

By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy. DISMISS NOTICE

Copyright ©2023 Tailteann Tours

Designed by Aeronstudio™