As Napoleon and his massive army approached Moscow, Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov ordered his troops to retreat and burn the city as they left. This seemingly crazy strategy may have been a stroke of genius, and the strange series of events that led up to this now famous decision are just starting to come to light.
After more than two-years of international investigation, researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute have concluded that Napoleon likely would have conquered Russia in 1812 if not for the lifesaving brain surgery performed on Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov. French surgeon Jean Massot operated on Kutuzov after bullets passed through his head twice.
"It's a story of how medicine changed the course of civilization," said lead researcher Mark C. Preul, MD, PhD, and chair of neurosurgery research at Barrow.
According to the study, Kutuzov survived being shot in the head twice, once in 1774 and again in 1788, thanks to cutting-edge techniques used by Massot that foreshadowed modern neurosurgery.
“He [was] at the vanguard of surgical technique. He [used] incredibly modern techniques that we still use today," Preul said
While Kutuzov survived the seemingly mortal wounds, he was not left undamaged.
The researchers found evidence that the first bullet wound, sustained in a battle with the Turks in Crimea, had destroyed Kutuzov's frontal lobe, which could explain his erratic behavior after the injury.
According the study, the damage sustained from the gunshots most likely impaired his ability to make decisions, and eyewitness accounts from the time also remark about Kutuzov’s altered personality after the first gunshot wound.
The injury may also explain the unconventional strategy Kutuzov used to repel Napoleon's superior invading forces and become a Russian hero.
Instead of challenging Napoleon's Grande Armée at the city of Moscow in the autumn of 1812, Kutuzov put off a confrontation. He ordered the city burned and fled with his army to safety east of Moscow. Napoleon's army pursued, invading the city, but lacking food and supplies succumbed to a horribly brutal early Russian winter. 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 make what turned out to be the best decision. If he had not been injured, he may well have challenged Napoleon and been defeated."
Preul said some questions about Kutuzov's injuries — and Massot's operations on them — can't be completely answered without a medical examination. Kutuzov's body has not been examined since his autopsy shortly after his death in April 1813, but this much is clear: Kutuzov would not have been in command without Massot's efforts.
"Although some would say fate allowed the brilliant Russian general, who became the personification of Russian spirit and character, to survive two nearly mortal head wounds, the best neurosurgical technique of the day seems to have been overlooked as a considerable part of Kutuzov's success," the researchers wrote.