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Did A Brain Injury Save Russia From Napoleon?

As this portrait shows, Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov had suffered (and survived) serious head trauma before his encounters with Napoleon's Grand Armee.
As this portrait shows, Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov had suffered (and survived) serious head trauma before his encounters with Napoleon's Grand Armee.

Many Russians consider Mikhail Kutuzov a national hero and a savior of his country for brilliantly repelling Napoleon's 1812 invasion.

But it could all have turned out differently, if it hadn't been for a certain French doctor.

That, at least, is what researchers at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona have concluded.

After an investigation lasting more than two years, the American scientists credited a French surgeon in the Russian army, Jean Massot, with changing the course of history.

The American researchers found that Massot, years before Napoleon's invasion, employed experimental techniques that foreshadowed modern neurosurgery to help Kutuzov survive what otherwise would have been two mortal bullet wounds.

In their study, published in the U.S. Journal of Neurosurgery, the researchers also say the wounds provide clues to the strategy Kutuzov used to defeat the French emperor.

According to Dr. Mark C. Preul, leader of the research team, "It's a story of how medicine changed the course of civilization."

Kutuzov survived two shots to the head while fighting the Turks in 1774 and 1788, before playing a major part in repelling Napoleon's seemingly invincible Grande Armee.

"We wanted to find out what really happened and basically identify this surgeon who saved Mikhail Kutuzov," Preul added. "Massot's facts were somewhat buried. He is at the vanguard of surgical technique. He uses incredibly modern techniques that we still use today."

The study found evidence that the first bullet wound, sustained in Crimea, destroyed Kutuzov's frontal lobe. The second bullet, sustained in another confrontation, passed through his face and skull base.

After treating the wounds, Massot wrote, "It must be believed that fate has appointed Kutuzov to something great, because he was still alive after two injuries, a death sentence by all the rules of medical science."

The U.S. scientists say the first wound could explain Kutuzov's erratic behavior after the injury, and most likely impaired the Russian general's ability to make decisions.

But paradoxically, that is what probably saved the day.

A hesitant Kutuzov delayed confronting Napoleon's forces in the autumn of 1812, retreating with his army safely to the east of Moscow after the Battle of Borodino, 125 kilometers west of the city.

The French imperial army captured Moscow and retreated following the burning of the city. Lacking supplies and food, the Grande Armee succumbed to a brutal early Russian winter and counterattacks by Russian forces. Napoleon abandoned the army in December and returned to Paris in defeat.

"The other generals thought Kutuzov was crazy, and maybe he was," Preul said. "The brain surgery saved Kutuzov's life, but his brain and eye were badly injured. However, ironically, the healing resolution of this situation allowed him to take what turned out to be the best decision."

"If he had not been injured, he might well have challenged Napoleon and been defeated," he added.

Quiz: The Russian Military And Its History

Quiz: The Russian Military And Its History

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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