Le petit caporal, and some science.

He only looks short?: I don't know. He looks like a darn hobbit here.  (image from Wikimedia commons)
He only looks short?: I don't know. He looks like a darn hobbit here. (image from Wikimedia commons)
According to the BMC Public Health journal, kids these days are both taller and heavier than kids, uh… used to be.

At any rate, BMC compared the height, weight, and body-mass indexes (a sort of weight to height ratio) of teenagers during a 1966-1969 study period to those of teens from a 1995-1997 study. The mean height, weight, and body-mass indexes for almost all age and sex groups increased significantly.

While these figures might initially provoke comments on childhood obesity, BMC is quick to point out that in increase in the mean body-mass index isn’t necessarily a bad thing – rather, it suggests that childhood nutrition is improving. The exceptions to the increasing means, in this case, may be more significant.

The study indicated that while all males age 14-18, as well as 18-year-old females, showed increased body-mass indexes, females aged 14-17 were entirely exempt from the trend, and perhaps were suffering from being underweight.

This study got me thinking - if I ever have children, I hope they remain smaller than me for the duration of my life. I think it would be too frustrating to have to physically look up to my kid.

The study also reminded me of something that has come up in my conversations several times in the last week: Napoleon’s height.

Now, the height of the little emperor may not be related to this article in any significant way, but I think it’s important that everyone is aware of the debate. We all know that Napoleon was a little guy, right? Historians generally agree that Bonaparte’s height was just about 5’ 2”, which is, of course, nothing to be embarrassed about, but it’s relatively tiny, especially in this day and age of towering, lumbering teenagers (see the BMC Public Health journal). However, some have argued that this measurement was originally taken in French inches. What’s the difference? Just this: your French inch is slightly larger than your Imperial inch (which we use). If this was the case, Napoleon’s true height would have been about 5’ 6”. No Yao Ming, but 5’ 6” was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of the early 19th century. He would likely have appeared short, because Napoleon was often surrounded by members of his elite guard, who were almost always 6’ or taller.

Then again, Napoleon was reported to have been measured after his death, on British-controlled St. Helena. This would suggest that he was indeed measured in British inches. And let’s not rule out the influence of propaganda one either side.

It’s a tricky problem to solve, but it’s important that we do. How else will we figure out Bonaparte’s body-mass index? While he lost weight shortly before he died (and how that happened is another mystery), we do know that he weight approximately 200 pounds in the last year of his life. 5’ 2” and a deuce is impressive, but we can’t say for sure, can we.

So how are we to figure out Napoleon’s height? I suggested recently that someone could examine his portraits for various items that could be used as a scale (if only he were depicted holding a #2 pencil more often!). I thought this was pretty clever, but then it was suggested that, instead, someone just go and dig him up to measure his skeleton. This seems awfully rude, though, and not very much fun (unless you’re into that sort of thing).

So, in the name of science and a more accurate picture of changing body-mass indexes, does anyone have an idea on how to best determine Napoleon’s true height? An idea, that won’t result in your being haunted by a tiny Frenchman?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Go to www.napoleon.org -- there is an article there about Napoleon's height. There is little doubt that he stood between 5ft 6ins and 5ft 7ins. There is a little-known journal by the English upholster (Andrew Darling) who prepared Napoleon's coffin. (A pdf of the article quoting this journal may be found on the New York Times web-site in their archive for 1915.) In this journal he records that he measured Napoleon's height as 5ft 7ins, and states that he made the coffin 5ft 11ins. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the height recorded by Napoleon's valet, Marchand, as having been taken by Antommarchi after the latter had performed the autopsy (which was given as 5 pieds 2 pouces 4 lignes) was taken using a French tape measure, as the height is very close to 5ft 7ins in British Imperial measure (the difference is about a centimetre, or less than half an inch). Marchand's journal has been translated into English and was published a few years ago by Proctor Jones.

posted on Wed, 07/30/2008 - 7:24am

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