Composer Beethoven's hair contains clues to illnesses and death
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Composer 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 as plumbism.

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 Sotheby’s 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 today.

"It was a surprise, but it stood out like a sore thumb in the analysis," said William Walsh, director of the institute’s Beethoven research project. Scientists initially were searching for evidence of mercury, a common treatment for syphilis in Beethoven’s 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 Beethoven’s 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 composer’s hair taken before his death.

Lead poisoning may also explain what some described as dramatic mood swings. "If you asked friends, they’d 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 Beethoven’s 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.

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