Short sighted

It is a widely held belief that Napoleon Bonaparte was a man of short stature however, there is good reason to believe that this was a myth. The French inch is longer than the British inch. Napoleon was said to be 5 foot 2 inches tall; but if his height was converted into British inches, then he would be 5 foot 7 inches tall, which was the average height for a Frenchman of his time. If this was absolutely true then would it be safe to assume that Napoleon was not as short as he was shown in propagandist depictions sanctioned by his rivals, which was a common tactic of its time to accentuate the slightest flaw in any opponents character.

Unfortunately, the French offered little help, often depicting Napoleon standing alongside his much taller Imperial Guards who had a height requirement, giving the impression that he was much shorter. Napoleon was also given the name Le Petite Caporal, by his countrymen. Intended as a term of endearment  but when translated means, the little corporal. This  further perpetuates the idea that Napoleon was short. But more importantly, and even more important than the rumors that his wife Josephine was asked not to wear high heel shoes in his presence because she stood at 5 foot 4 inches tall, were the constant barrage of negative rumors and depictions by his enemies who insisted on undermining his authority and power by portraying him as diminutive in propaganda as a way to usurp his power.

The fact of the matter is that in 1802 Napoleon’s doctor Corvisart documented that Napoleon was 5 foot 2 inches tall. If he used the French inch than we know that Napoleon was in fact much taller, but this same doctor went on to state that Napoleon was of short stature. At his death in 1821, Napoleon living in exile on the rocky island of St. Helena, was autopsied by Francesco Antommarchi, a Frenchman, who listed Napoleon’s height once again at 5 foot 2 inches tall. Yet, the autopsy was signed off by the British doctors further lending doubt to whether or not Napoleon was indeed taller than listed at his death.

Much of what is remembered of Napoleon’s reign is mirrored in the confusion over his height. He is often considered a mass of contradictions. His legacy however, is often overshadowed by his rumored short stature and is thought to be the basis for the psychological condition, the inferiority complex, described by Alfred Adler in his book, Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation in 1907.

Adler wrote, “To be a human being means to feel oneself inferior. The child comes into the as a helpless creature surrounded by powerful adults. A child motivated by his feelings of inferiority to strive for greater things. When he has reached one level of development, he begins to feel inferior once more and the striving for something better begins again which is the great driving force of mankind.”

Adler himself was no stranger to feelings of inferiority. As the second child of seven children born into a Hungarian Jewish family, he developed rickets, a disease cause by a deficiency of vitamin D which leads to low calcium, poor calcification and bony deformities. Taken from the old English word for “twist,” Rickets was extremely common. Children were often left with a disfiguring bowing of the legs and knocked knees. Adler was unable to walk until he was four years old, and he almost died of pneumonia when he was five. These two life altering afflictions spurred his passion for greater things and that is why he decided to become a doctor.

Part of Adler’s later work involving the inferiority complex, branched into the Napoleonic Complex, which dealt with feelings of inadequacy that stem from one’s own insecurities over their height.

Throughout history, short men and women have made great contributions. Yet often these contributions are seen as overcompensation for their inferior height.

So what is it about being short that often leads those who are below the normal standard of height to feel inadequate?

Currently, the average height for a male over 20 years of age in the U.S. is 5 foot 9 inches tall, a substantial difference when you consider Napoleon’s height. The question remains, do taller people exceed more than shorter people? Do they excel is sports, get more promotions at work and find themselves more attractive to the object of their sexual desire? I say yes.

Last night I attended the Lincoln Center production of a Free Man of Color, the new play by John Guare features a stellar cast including Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def and Veanne Cox ( who happens to play three characters including an elderly man). One of the other central characters was none other than Napoleon himself. Of course, Mr. Guare played on this widely held belief that Napoleon was short and therefore compensated for what he lacked in height by attempting to overthrow Europe, the United States and even Russian. His failure of course, led to his exile.

The study of height or auxology has been used to measure the health of individuals as indicators of health problems, monitor growth trends, and track deviations and genetic expectations.  Right now there are pharmaceutical companies proposing the use of growth hormone to improve height expectations in children who are born to short parents. This is the next wave in creating a super race that is taller, stronger and faster. The movie Avatar was not so ahead of its time when you think about it. Although I have mixed feelings about giving growth hormone to children, it’s better than the alternative, the painful and grotesque tibial elongation procedures. And yes, I thought about it myself.

As I sat there last night watching the performance and laughing along with everyone else at the Napoleonic jokes, I thought to myself, what will the future hold when average height climbs to new heights? How will this affect how we live? We’ll need bigger cars, roomier air planes and bigger seats in the theater so that all you tall people won’t knock your knees into the back of my seat during a play starring a short, French Emperor. It’s proven you shrink as you get older. Perhaps by then I won’t be able to attend the theater unless, of course, I’m sitting on someone’s lap.



  1. Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    You could also carry a phone book to sit on! Hehehe…

    Meanwhile, I’m convinced that I’ve shrunk in height by about an inch. I never thought height mattered, until I could no longer say with confidence that I am 6’2″.

    Go figure.

  2. Mich
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    the average height in the Netherlands is now over 6′ … it’s way past time to adapt airplane seats to the increasing average height of humans.

  3. phillip
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Very good history lesson. I did not know all those details about Napoleon.

    I think that a lot of people are attracted to people only based on the individual and physical height is quite often not even part of the mix.

    Some people are really attracted to shorter stockier guys with huge personalities.

    Some people who may feel “short” and feel “inadequate” about it and about how other people may see them should try and find something else to obsess about.

    In truth, someone who is admired and respected often is remembered as a “large” person which brings about the illusion of “bigness” and physical height is often not even on the radar to said observer.

    Sometimes when the admirer thinks of the person, the memory is tall.

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