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Study: Beethoven Died from Lead Poisoning

U.S. scientists say long-term lead poisoning killed German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who died in 1827. They came to this conclusion after bombarding fragments of Beethoven's bone and samples of his hair with a powerful X-ray beam. This testing method has relevance to environmental research.

The musical genius who composed this symphonic masterpiece was plagued by chronic abdominal distress from his early 20's until his death at age 56. He also lost his hearing in his late 20's.

Now an Illinois researcher specializing in chemical imbalances of the body, Bill Walsh, has discovered that Beethoven had toxic amounts of lead in his body, a finding that is consistent with the type of stomach disorder he suffered, although not with his deafness.

"He had extraordinarily high levels of lead, both in his skull and in his hair. Beethoven's levels were probably 100 times more than present in Americans today," said Mr. Walsh.

Mr. Walsh made the diagnosis with researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. There, they subjected pieces of Beethoven's skull and hair to intense X-ray bombardment. The technique propelled X-rays around a 400-meter-long circular tunnel at nearly the speed of light. Mr. Walsh says the light particles collided with the composer's tissue and displaced atoms that a sensor determined to be lead.

"We went in not knowing what to expect," he added. "We did not have any particular ideas except that there had been a suggestion that he might have been high in mercury. That suggestion came from people who thought that perhaps his miserable symptoms he had in his life might have been syphilis, and if he had syphilis, he would have had mercury medications. When we did the findings, the only element that was unusual was lead."

Mr. Walsh says the presence of lead in Beethoven's skull suggests long-term ingestion of the metal, not a single large dose. Perhaps the source was the material that leeched from lead wine goblets, possibly intensified by additional lead from the linings of the bottles of the many medical tonics he took for his ills.

The x-ray unit used for the analysis is a 10-year-old facility called the Advanced Photon Source that provides the most powerful X-ray beams in the western hemisphere. The beams allow scientists to better understand the structure and function of materials, of which Beethoven's skull fragments and hair might be among the most unusual.

Argonne National Laboratory researcher Ken Kemner says the study has helped him develop techniques to determine levels of heavy metal contaminants in the environment. He is also learning how to measure such metals in bacteria, which scientists hope to use someday to consume large amounts of the dangerous elements to remove them from the environment.

"So being given the opportunity to look at material from a human thought to have exposure to some sort of heavy metal was a wonderful beginning to figuring out if we could use this facility to do these types of studies to understand these movements of contaminants," he explained.

The Beethoven study used a fragment of the composer's skull owned by a California businessman who inherited it through family members from a great-great uncle, an Austrian physician. The hair samples are the property of the American Beethoven Society in San Jose, California, which bought the lock at a London auction in 1994.