Dr Barry Edward O'Meara
Physician to Napoleon
(1783 – 1836)
Dr O’Meara was born in Newtown House in Newtown on Sea (now known as Blackrock), in Co. Dublin. His family were well off and were able to afford a good education for all of their four children. He studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and also at the Royal College of Surgeons. He qualified in 1804 and joined the 62nd Regiment of foot. He sailed to the West Indies, but they were caught in a hurricane and had to return to Portsmouth where the Regiment were put on half pay and told to await further orders. None came.
The young Dr O’Meara asked for, and was given, permission to attend a teaching hospital in London in order to further his post-graduate education. He attended St Bartholomew’s in 1805. Suddenly the 62nd regiment were ordered to the Mediterranean. A garrison was under siege in Alexandria in Egypt. They relieved the garrison and brought the survivors back to safety in Sicily.
On his arrival at Sicily he was asked to row across the dangerous Straits of Messina and give medical help to the troops who were under siege at the Castle of Scylla. To get to the castle he had to scale a sheer two hundred foot cliff face. He discovered that most of the men were wounded and dying. He did what he could but he knew that it was hopeless. After 6 weeks of continual bombardment Col. Robertson decided to abandon the castle to Napoleon’s troops.
Barry records, with a certain amount of satisfaction, that he was able to get forty nine stretchers down the cliff face and back to Messina without the loss of life. They were all rewarded with an extra bar of soap but advised to keep their hair a little shorter!
Later during that long hot summer Barry was invited by his friend to act as a second in a duel (duelling had been strictly forbidden at that time). When the Governor, Sir John Stuart, heard of the affair he had Dr O’Meara and an Irish friend court-martialled. Both were necessarily cashiered from the army.
The ever-resilient and optimistic Barry now sailed to Malta where he joined the Navy. He fought in the West Indies and the Mediterranean and had the distinction of being on the “Victorious” when they captured the newest French flagship the “Rivoli”. He was now mentioned in dispatches and became a senior surgeon.
He was the senior surgeon on the HMS Bellerophon when Napoleon surrendered at La Rochelle in July 1815.
On board Napoleon was most impressed by the Irish doctor who spoke excellent Italian and reasonably good French. When Napoleon discovered that the British Government intended to imprison him on St Helena he requested Dr O’Meara to become his personal physician
Dr O’Meara agreed to this proposal but informed the Admiralty that he would only look after Napoleon as his doctor and not act as a spy. During their long seventy two day sailing voyage to St Helena both men got to know each other very well and became friends.
At St Helena the forty two French entourage were housed in Longwood House. This was an old barn converted into a make-shift house on the south west of the island. The house was permanently surrounded by cloud and mist, and often heavy tropical rainfall. The French retinue were miserable, but not Napoleon. He accepted his incarceration despite the starving black rats scurrying about his new home, and the depression amongst his staff. His greatest fear was boredom. Dr O’Meara recognised this and did his best to help. His daily visits to this great man became longer – often Barry would spend a whole afternoon discussing such topics as politics, warfare, women, medicine or any subject to relieve the monotony. It was at this time that Napoleon suggested to Barry that he keep a diary of everyday events on the island. When Barry asked why Napoleon replied “Doctor, it will make you a fortune but please do not publish until after I am dead”. Barry replied that he was “flattered and greatly honoured”. That night he dipped his quill into black ink and by gutted candle light started the first page of an eighteen hundred page diary.
All was well until the arrival of Sir Hudson Lowe, a small, thin, psychopathic, nervous, irritable man who was totally unsuitable for the position of Governor General. Napoleon took an instant dislike to him and after their 5th meeting he refused to see or speak to the new Governor ever again.
The doctor was now placed in the invidious position as a ‘go-between’. He had to calm the preposterous orders of Hudson Lowe and try and keep the peace with Napoleon. As time went by he became more protective of the Emperor. This was something that irritated the Governor so much he sent numerous requests to have the Irish doctor removed from the Island. Had Sir Hudson Lowe succeeded in sending Barry away Napoleon would have refused to see any other doctor. More importantly he would have lost a dear friend and confident. This battle between the men lasted for nearly three years.
Eventually Hudson Lowes’ constant requests for the Irish doctor’s dismissal were successful. The British Government agreed to the return of Barry O’Meara. After an emotional farewell with the Emperor Barry sailed to England in July 1818.
Back in London Dr O’Meara immediately reported to the Admiralty stipulating that Napoleon was ill, in fact dying, and should be brought back to England for proper medical attention. The chairman of the board informed him that reports from Sir Hudson Lowe stipulated that Napoleon was imagining his illness. He was shown a report that “Dr O’Meara states that Napoleon has the pain of a hypochondriac”. He corrected this stating that “the pain was in fact in the hypocondrium”.
The board suggested that O’Meara remain silent about Napoleon’s health and offered him the important post of consultant surgeon at the Chelsea and Greenwich naval hospital. He thanked them for their generous offer and stated that he could only accept the position “when they remove my patient from St |Helena”. The chairman responded “we will let you know”.
Two weeks later Barry was informed that not alone was he cashiered from the navy but also had lost his pension, had forfeited his good reputation and that his name was struck of the medical register.
The ever-resilient doctor was not destroyed by this outcome. He rented rooms on the ground floor of an impressive building on the Edgeware Road in the heart of London. He hung Napoleon’s wisdom tooth on the window and opened up as a dentist. He also invented a tooth powder which apparently sold very well.
Three years later, on the 5th May 1821, Napoleon died on St Helena. O’Meara was now free to publish his diaries which had been wisely edited down to two volumes. It was an instant success. The crowds who lined up for a copy of his work had to be controlled by police. Suddenly Dr O’Meara was a famous and wealthy man who was invited everywhere and became an excellent after dinner speaker.
He never forgot his mother country and became a great friend and supporter of Daniel O’Connell. Standing beside a window to get some fresh air at one of O’Connell’s meetings he caught the ‘flu. Returning to his comfortable home at 16 Cambridge Terrace in London he took to his bed. Some two weeks later he died on 12th July 1836 aged fifty three. Four days later he was buried beneath the floor of St Mary’s Church, Paddington.
Hubert S O’Connor, MA, MB, FRCOG
The Emperor and the Irishman by Hubert O’Connor