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CLASSICAL  December 2005

CLASSICAL December 2005

Subject:

Beethoven's Death

From:

Larry Sherwood <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 6 Dec 2005 06:09:28 -0600

Content-Type:

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This article from today's Washington Post says it was lead poisoning.

   Study Concludes Beethoven Died From Lead Poisoning

   By Rick Weiss
   Washington Post Staff Writer
   Tuesday, December 6, 2005; A08

   By focusing the most powerful X-ray beam in the Western Hemisphere
   on six of Ludwig van Beethoven's hairs and a few pieces of his
   skull, scientists have gathered what they say is conclusive
   evidence that the famous composer died of lead poisoning.

   The work, done at the Energy Department's Argonne National
   Laboratory outside of Chicago, confirms earlier hints that
   lead may have caused Beethoven's decades of poor health, which
   culminated in a long and painful death in 1827 at age 56.

   "There's no doubt in my mind . . . he was a victim of lead
   poisoning," said Bill Walsh, an expert in forensic analysis and
   chief scientist at Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville,
   Ill., who led the study with energy department researcher Ken
   Kemner.

   Still a mystery, however, is the source of Beethoven's lead
   exposure, which evidence now suggests occurred over many years.
   Among the possibilities are his liberal indulgence in wine
   consumed from lead cups or perhaps a lifetime of medical treatments,
   which in the 19th century were often laced with heavy metals.

   One metal that was clearly absent was mercury, Walsh said -- a
   detail that weakens the hypothesis floated by some that Beethoven
   had syphilis, which in those days was commonly treated with
   mercury.

   "We found zero evidence of that," Walsh said, "so it was nice
   to exonerate him of that scurrilous possibility." Details of the
   findings are to be announced today in Argonne, Ill.

   The work was done at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, a $467
   million high-tech facility that sends subatomic particles sailing
   around a circular half-mile-long track at velocities up to 99.999
   percent of the speed of light.

   When electrons are whipped around that tubular tunnel they emit
   X-rays that are 100 times as bright as the surface of the sun.
   Scientists can divert those rays toward tiny samples in need of
   analysis. As those X-rays hit atoms in a sample, they knock other
   electrons out of place, causing a brief release of energy whose
   signature is specific to the types of atoms present.

   Many of the atoms in Beethoven's body were lead atoms, it turns
   out. The hair samples clocked in at 60 parts per million, or
   about 100 times higher than normal. The bone samples were also
   extremely high in lead, though technical problems kept the team
   from getting a precise number for those samples.

   The hair samples were from an authenticated lock of Beethoven's
   hair purchased by a collector from Sotheby's several years ago.
   Preliminary studies completed on two of those hairs in 2000
   suggested high levels of lead but were not definitive and left
   open the question of whether they were the result of short-term
   or chronic exposure.

   Moreover, the method used at that time destroyed the hairs --
   an approach the owner was not willing to repeat.

   Argonne's X-ray technique is nondestructive. Moreover, it offered
   Kemner a chance to further his research, which aims to develop
   ways to clean up heavy-metal contamination. A major goal is to
   develop soil-dwelling bacteria that can consume dangerous elements
   and render them relatively harmless.

   The hairs were the smallest things Kemner had ever analyzed with
   the X-ray beam. In part because of that success, he has since
   moved on to measuring heavy-metal levels in individual bacteria,
   which are 1/100th the diameter of those hairs.

   The skull relics are the property of a California businessman
   who inherited them through various relatives from his great-great
   uncle, who was a doctor in Austria. The lead analysis has been
   complete for more than a year, Walsh and Kemner said in a telephone
   interview yesterday. But the two were sworn to secrecy until the
   businessman received the test results comparing the bone DNA to
   that in the hairs.

   Those tests, recently completed, came back somewhat short of
   definitive, but the provenance of the bones is "absolutely clear,"
   said William Meredith, a Beethoven scholar and director of the
   Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University in
   California.

   Beethoven developed serious health problems in his early twenties,
   which grew worse over time and reflected many of the symptoms
   of lead poisoning, including severe stomach problems.

   The composer was deaf by his late twenties, a problem of
   questionable relevance because deafness has only rarely been
   associated with lead poisoning.

   But with his many health problems, it is not hard to imagine
   that medicine itself may have done him in, Meredith said.

   "He was diagnosed with lots of things, and he was prescribed
   lots of different treatments." If nothing else, he said, some
   medicines may have leached the metal from leaded glass medicine
   bottles.

   Although the new work leaves the question of the lead's source
   frustratingly unanswered, it is an important contribution,
   Meredith said.

   "There have been many doctors who have theorized about what ailed
   Beethoven," he said. "But this is actual science versus interpreting
   someone else's description of symptoms."

Larry Sherwood <[log in to unmask]>

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