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The Dentist And The Empress
The mob was at the palace gates; her husband was already a prisoner; the servants were stealing imperial treasures before her eyes; Empress Eugénie turned to the one man in France she could trust—Dr. Thomas W. Evans of Lancaster, Pa.
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
When the President repudiated the Republic and established his authoritarian regime on December 2, 1852, the anniversary of the victory at Austerlitz of Napoleon I, a day rich in historic overtones for the French nation, Louis Napoleon took the title of Emperor Napoleon III and moved to the Tuileries. Dr. Evans became a member of the Imperial Court medical corps as surgeon-dentist, complete with gold-embroidered uniform. With such enhanced prestige, added to the good reputation that American dentistry already enjoyed in Europe, Evans was soon traveling to visit royal patients all over the Continent, recipient of their gratitude, friendship, and confidences. Often Napoleon III entrusted the American with unofficial diplomatic missions. The doctor was well suited for the role. As an American he was free of European political entanglements. He was honorable. He kept faith. He was supple. It is probable that Dr. Evans exaggerated somewhat his importance as envoy but he didn’t invent it. Napoleon was conspiratorial and had a predisposition for operating in that fashion. We have the testimony of John Bigelow, when he was United States Consul General at Paris, that other monarchs, too, entrusted the American dentist with confidential messages. “It sometimes happens,” Bigelow reported to Secretary of State William H. Seward, “when the crowned-heads of Europe wish to communicate with one another without any responsibility they send for Dr. Evans to fix their teeth.”
Further confirmation comes from another contemporary, Henry (“Labby”) Labouchere, foreign correspondent for The Daily News (London) and later Member of Parliament, that “the August, Princely, Grand-Ducal, and other Highnesses received and spoke to him exactly as he said” and he “remained a favorite of the different potentates to whom he used to take messages from Napoleon III.” Labouchere, indeed, equated Evans’ access to European royalty with that of Baron Christian Friedrich von Stockmar, a German physician who became friend and adviser to Leopold I of Belgium and to Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert.
Dr. Evans did not charge his distinguished patrons for filling their teeth. His reward was, first of all, simply to be part of the scene as he had imagined it back in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mingling familiarly with the titled aristocracy of the world of swirling crinolines, low décolletés, masked balls, Offenbach’s music, of worldlings and demimondaines, and Winterhalter’s flattering, superficial portraiture. But Dr. Evans’ royal patients did not forget their duty to him. “Decorations, all the years I knew him, kept raining down on him,” Labouchere recalled. The sovereigns of Europe rewarded the dentist also with valuable gifts, and provided him with an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes—how Napoleon III had given him a diamond scarf-pin, remarking, “This stone I had taken from the hilt of a sword belonging to my uncle, Napoleon the First”; how he had successfully treated King Maximilian of Bavaria; how the Grand Duchess Louise of Baden gave Mrs. Evans a pair of beautiful black pearl earrings and a clock made from wood taken from the Black Forest; of two Holy Fathers, Pope Pius IX and Leo XIII, who were his despair: neither would brush his teeth. He spoke, too, of a prized decoration he received from King Christian IX of Denmark: “I knew him when he was a simple prince.”
An emperor must have a wife if there is to be a dynasty. When the time for marriage came, Napoleon III chose another Evans patient, Mlle. Eugénie de Guzman Montijo, a resplendently beautiful young Spaniard, descendant of a dozen grandees, though not of royal blood, more British in appearance than Latin because she was, through her mother, a Kirkpatrick.
After the marriage, solemnized at Notre Dame with medieval pomp (Dr. Evans was a wedding guest), the Doctor quickly won a position of confidence and high regard with the new Empress because of his interest in urging fresh approaches to military medicine. This shows another side of the doctor, perhaps a lingering heritage of the Quaker conscience. At any rate, Evans went to the Crimea, witnessed the suffering in the Crimean War, and determined to stir up the responsibles in French army medicine as to the need for sanitary reform and more adequate relief for the wounded. And again in 1859 he visited military hospitals to see frightful wounds suffered by both the French and their Austrian opponents at Magenta and Solferino when France fought to expel Austria from Italy. It was through the Empress’ encouragement that Dr. Evans, now fluent in French, though he never acquired a good accent, prepared a volume on the Civil War experience of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, first published in France (1865) as La Commission sanitaire des Etats-Unis: son origine, son organization et ses résultats, avec une notice sur les hospitaux militaires aux Etats-Unis, et sur la réforme sanitaire dans les armées européenes .