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).
Argonne National Laboratory
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