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
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
"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
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
Although the new work leaves the question of the lead's source
frustratingly unanswered, it is an important contribution,
"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]>