The History of Beethoven's Skull Fragments: PART ONE

By Meredith, William | The Beethoven Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The History of Beethoven's Skull Fragments: PART ONE


Meredith, William, The Beethoven Journal


(ProQuest: ... denotes "strike-through" in the original text omitted.)

I. The Treatment of Beethoven's Body from March 26-29, 1827

Around 5:45 p.m. on Monday, March 26,1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died at die age of fifty-six in his apartment in die Schwarzspanierhaus in Vienna after an illness of several months.1 The death certificate recorded the cause of death as "Wassersucht" (dropsy); the actual cause or causes of the composers death are still debated by medical experts and amateurs alike. In Beethoven in Person: His Deafness, Illnesses, and Death, the physician Peter J. Davies concluded that renal papillary necrosis and liver disease were the causes of Beethoven's death; his chapter on "The Cause of Beethoven's Death" contains a careful analysis of the various symptoms of the composer and theories related to their causes.2 The Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper argued that "whether the liver disease was caused by his alcohol consumption is still disputed, but alcohol was probably a contributory factor."3 The composer also suffered-at the time of his death-from severe lead poisoning, as has been revealed by heavy metals analyses of strands of his hair cut from his head on March 27 by Ferdinand Hiller;4 we do not know the source or date of the poisoning.

The composer, lawyer, and painter Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Beethoven's housekeeper "Sali" (Rosalie) were in the room at the moment of death.5 The fourteenyear-old Gerhard von Breuning had left about 5:15 p.m. to go home to meet his teacher.6 Stephan von Breuning, the composer's old friend whom he had known both in Bonn and Vienna, and Anton Schindler, his occasional voluntary secretary and friend, had gone to select a burial plot in the cemetery of, as the biographer Alexander Thayer describes it, "the little village of Wahring."7 (see Fig. 1.) The Wahring cemetery was selected because Breuning's first wife, Julie von Vering (with whom Beethoven had played fourhand duets and who was the dedicatee of the pianoforte arrangement of the Violin Concerto) was buried there in the Vering family plot. Two men kept the deathwatch the first night. (Stephan von Braining himself that six weeks after Beethoven and was buried a few graves further down from Beethoven in the Vering family tomb.)

On the morning of March 27, a private autopsy was performed by Dr. Johann Wagner, an assistant at the Pathologisch-anatomisches Museum in Vienna. Dr. Andreas Wawruch, Beethoven's primary doctor since December 1826, was in attendance.8 The temporal bones were sawed out and taken away for study; Gerhard von Breuning kter reported that he had been told they were in me possession of the mortuary orderly, Anton Doner.9 According to a Viennese rumor, Dotter sold the bones to a foreign physician.10 (Another unconfirmed rumor adds that the temporal bones ended up in London and were destroyed during a German bombing attack on the city during World War II.) Whatever the truth of the matter, the bones are now lost. A second saw cut across the top of the skull is dear in the somewhat gruesome frontal photograph that was taken during the 1863 exhumation; Gerhard von Breuning reported that "In addition, the skull had been sawed through crosswise, as was usual in autopsies."11 (See Fig. 2, reproduced from Hans Bankl and Hans Jesserer's Die Krankheiten Ludwig van Beethovens.)12 The official report of the 1863 exhumation of Beethoven (see below) states that "the sawing process ... must have been handled in a very rough way" because "the seams [of the skull bones] did not close perfectly since numerous splinters had been lost." As is dear from the autopsy report, Dr. Wagner also cut open the thoracic and abdominal cavities; he described the appearance of the lungs, liver, gall bladder, spleen, pancreas, stomach, intestines, and kidneys.13

We do not know who requested the autopsy or who authorized it; Beethoven's only surviving sibling, his brother Johann, who had been at Beethoven's bedside the day the composer died, must surely have been part of the discussion. …

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