Beethoven's hair contains clues to illnesses and death
A four year analysis of Beethoven's hair has turned up a concentration
of lead 100 times the levels commonly found in people today. That
means it is almost certain that the composer, considered the most
popular of his generation, suffered from lead poisoning, also known
Beethoven experts say many mourners took hair strands after his
death from pneumonia and complications of abdominal problems in
1827. "He was practically bald when he was buried," said
Ira Brilliant, the founder of the Center of Beethoven Studies. Brilliant
and Alfredo Guevara, a surgeon from Nogales, Arizona, bought locks
of hair in 1994 for $7,300 at Sothebys auction house in London.
Researchers at the Health Research Institute in Chicago studied
the hair and revealed the high lead concentations. Their conclusions
were based on chemical analysis by the McCrone Research Institute
in Chicago and X-rays taken at Argonne National Laboratory using
an electron accelerator that creates the most detailed X-rays available
"It was a surprise, but it stood out like a sore thumb in
the analysis," said William Walsh, director of the institutes
Beethoven research project. Scientists initially were searching
for evidence of mercury, a common treatment for syphilis in Beethovens
day. The absence of mercury supports the recent consensus of Beethoven
scholars who believe he did not suffer from the disease.
In rare cases, lead poisoning can cause deafness, but scientists
do not know if that was what caused Beethovens hearing loss.
So that is really the million-dollar question, said
William Meredith, director of the Center for Beethoven Studies at
San Jose State University. He says he hopes further testing will
be done on other locks of hair from the Beethoven house in Bohn,
Germany, which has several strands of the composers hair taken
before his death.
Lead poisoning may also explain what some described as dramatic
mood swings. "If you asked friends, theyd say he could
be gruff but he had a great sense of humor," Meredith said.
"Others say he was unpredictable, very erratic behavior, that
you could never know what to expect when you visited him."
The Health Research Institute scientists say Beethovens lead
exposure occurred as an adult but the source of the lead is unclear,
although one possibility is the mineral water he swam in and drank
during his stays at spas.