Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The German composer Beethoven, considered one of the most gifted composers of all time, died inexplicably at the age of 57 in 1827. He had been quite sick in the months leading up to his death, and in the past few years, research has determined that Beethoven likely died of lead poisoning. Studies detected toxic levels of lead in his hair and then, two years ago, in Beethoven’s bone fragments. Now, Viennese forensic pathologist Christian Reiter has published a paper in the Beethoven Journal claiming that Beethoven’s doctor likely inadvertently poisoned the composer with lead-containing balm.

Reiter shows that in the final months leading to Beethoven’s death, the lead concentrations in his body increased every following every “treatment” by his doctor, Andreas Wawruch, for fluid inside the abdomen. After Beethoven died, an autopsy in 1827 confirmed that he had cirrhosis of the liver and edemas of the abdomen. Reiter claims that the reason that the composer’s lead levels spiked following treatments was due to the lead-containing poultice which Dr. Wawruch used to seal the puncture wound in Beethoven’s belly. While the levels of lead contained in the balm would not have been enough to kill a healthy person, Beethoven already suffered from an ailing liver which was pushed to failure by the additional lead poisoning.

Reiter’s paper used analysis of several hair strands to illustrate that “several peaks where the concentration of lead rose pretty massively” on the four occasions between December 5, 1826, and February 27, 1827, when Beethoven himself documented that he had been treated by Wawruch.

“Every time when his abdomen was punctured … we have an increase of the concentration of lead in the hair.”

Below is a chart comparing Beethoven’s lead levels in his bones (blue), to a normal control (red).
i-d10f3bcfebacf5eac1272bb34eee5815-beethoven_bonechart400.jpg
Argonne National Laboratory

For more infor, check out the NPR podcast on the topic.

Comments

  1. #1 Homie Bear
    August 28, 2007

    Do they know what caused his cirrhosis? I’m trying to recall from Immortal Beloved if he had a drinking problem, but can’t quite remember. I will now go listen to the Pastorale, which gets my vote for most beautiful music ever written.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    August 28, 2007

    From his wikipage:
    “Scholars disagree over whether Beethoven’s liver damage was the result of heavy alcohol consumption, and one (Gail S. Altman) has plausibly suggested that it was a gradual result of possibly deliberate arsenic poisoning.”

    It is possible that gradual lead poisoning might have acheived the same results. Some have speculated that Beethoven drank wine laced with lead in his youth, and it is known that many products (even those considered healthful) had dangerous amounts of lead in them in the 1700s.

    His father was a known alcoholic, though.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 28, 2007

    See also this precursor study from 2002:

    APS proves Beethoven had heavy metal hair

    http://www.anl.gov/Media_Center/Frontiers/2002/c3facil.html

    Researchers using Argonne?s Advanced Photon Source (APS) have confirmed that composer Ludwig van Beethoven?s years of chronic illness were due to lead poisoning. This toxin also may have contributed to the 19th-century composer?s death.

    Chemical analysis showed extraordinarily high levels of lead in strands of Beethoven?s hair, according to William Walsh, chief scientist for the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Ill. The institute performs chemical analysis of trace elements in the hair of children and adults and relates it to nutritional and biological conditions that contribute to behavior disorders and mental illness. Walsh led the Beethoven hair study in collaboration with Argonne physicists.

    The team performed nondestructive X-ray beam experiments involving side-by-side testing of six Beethoven hairs, a standard hair of known lead composition and a thin film of standard “lead glass” with a known lead composition.

    They found elevated lead levels that averaged about 60 parts per million (ppm) in the six Beethoven hairs, confirming earlier findings at Chicago?s McCrone Research Institute. According to Walsh, average Americans today have 0.6 ppm of lead in their hair, about 100 times less than Beethoven.

    Researchers performed the elemental X-ray fluorescence analysis at the APS Synchrotron Radiation Instrumentation Collaborative Access Team?s (SRI-CAT) beamline. SRI-CAT focuses on developing new instrumentation and techniques for the synchrotron radiation community as well as providing beam time for experiments.

  4. #4 killinchy
    August 29, 2007

    Was Beethoven Viennese? I have read that “Austrians” say that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. It’s the other way round.

  5. #5 toby
    August 29, 2007

    Wikipedia has some other 18th century (and earlier) people who may also have died of lead poisoning, including Napoleon Bonaparte, the man after whom Beethoven (initially) named the Eroica Symphony.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning#Napoleon_Bonaparte

    There was also a theory that the members of the lost Franklin expedition to the Arctic died of lead poisoning due to contamination of their tinned food (then a new process). I thinnk that has been disproved … someone found the patented process for the supplier and there was no lead involved, as far as we know. I think some bodies of expedition members did have high traces of lead.

  6. #6 Tracey Coulter
    September 4, 2007

    Beethoven was German and born in Bonn. Also, please, no one use the movie “Immortal Beloved” as a historically accurate view of Beethoven’s life – it’s just a movie, just like “Amadeus” is not an accurate account of Mozart’s life.

  7. #7 x-ray fluorescence
    February 27, 2009

    Hi,
    Very nice informative post.It is possible that gradual lead poisoning might have achieved the same results.
    x-ray fluorescence

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