Tests on the hair and skull fragments of Ludwig von Beethoven show the legendary 19th century German composer died from lead poisoning, a group of U.S. scientists announced yesterday.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois said bone fragments from Beethoven's skull, tested at the U.S.' most powerful X-ray facility, had high concentrations of lead, matching an earlier finding of lead in his 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,”said Bill Walsh, director of the Beethoven Research Project, in a statement.
Beethoven, whose piano, chamber and symphonic works count as some of the greatest of Western classical music, died at 56 in 1827 after years of struggling with unknown ailments, including progressive deafness in his later years.
“Beethoven suffered from bad digestion, chronic abdominal pain, irritability and depression,”said Walsh, a medical toxicologist at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois.
Walsh also said that it was possible that lead poisoning caused Beethoven's deafness.
By directing the X-rays through the bone fragments, the scientists could measure the presence of key elements, without destroying the bones.
The results showed no detectable levels of either cadmium or mercury, the scientists said, which were previously thought to be possible causes of Beethoven's illnesses.
The source of the lead is unknown, but they said some people speculate that Beethoven drank a respectable amount of wine, and the lead may have come from a wine goblet made with the metal.
Alternatively, some medical treatments in the 18th and 19th centuries made use of heavy metals like lead and mercury.
The fragments of Beethoven's skull are owned by California businessman Paul Kaufman, who inherited them from his great uncle, an Austrian doctor, who got them in 1863 during an exhumation of Beethoven's body.