Beethoven’s wish fulfilled
and World Science staff
Skull fragments of 19th Century composer Ludwig von Beethoven contain so much lead that it’s very likely the metal caused both his long-term health problems and death, researchers say.
In making the announcement, they noted, they were fulfilling a wish the composer himself voiced: that scientists would be able to use his remains to find out what was wrong with him, hopefully to prevent others from having to go through it.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., said the fragments, shown by DNA testing to have come from Beethoven’s body, were scanned by X-rays at the lab, which deploys the most powerful X-rays in the Western Hemisphere.
They also scanned another bone fragment from the same period and also, like the Beethoven sample, from the top of the skull.
“The testing indicated large amounts of lead in the Beethoven bone sample,” compared to the other one, said Bill Walsh, chief scientist at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Ill., and director of the Beethoven Research Project.
The fragment is the property of Paul Kaufman, a California businessman who inherited the relics through other family members from his great-great uncle, an Austrian doctor. Not sure if the fragment was actually from the composer, Kaufman sent it to the University of Muenster in Germany for mitochondrial DNA comparison with the samples of Beethoven’s hair, owned by the Beethoven Society and also analyzed by Walsh and his colleagues at the Advanced Photon Source.
The findings confirm the earlier work done on the hair samples. In addition, the researchers found no detectable levels of either cadmium or mercury – both considered possibilities for causing Beethoven’s illness – in either the bone fragment or the hair.
“The finding of elevated lead in Beethoven’s skull, along with DNA results indicating authenticity of the bone/hair relics, provides solid evidence that Beethoven suffered from a toxic overload of lead,” Walsh said in a statement. “In addition, the presence of lead in the skull suggests that his exposure to lead was not a recent event, but may have been present for many years.”
But the researchers didn’t say why Beethoven might have been exposed to lead.
Once it goes into the body, lead dissipates slowly. It takes 22 years for half of it to go away, the researchers said. Most of what stays eventually settles into the bones.
Beethoven experienced a change of personality and abdominal illness in his late teens and early 20s that persisted throughout his adult life. His abdominal symptoms and autopsy findings are both consistent with lead poisoning, Walsh said.
There have been documented cases of deafness resulting from lead poisoning, but this has been a relatively rare occurrence. There is no solid evidence that lead poisoning was a cause of Beethoven’s deafness, Walsh said.
“Beethoven saw physician after physician in search of a cure for his physical ailments,” said Walsh. In a letter to a friend, he expressed a wish that after his death, researchers would use his remains to help determine the cause of his illness so that others would not have to suffer as he did. “Beethoven suffered from bad digestion, chronic abdominal pain, irritability and depression. Since he died in 1827 at age 57, there has been much speculation but no proof of the cause of his illnesses and death.”
* * *
Send us a comment
on this story, or send
it to a friend