Beethoven Poisoned by Lead

By Lewis, Darcy | Strings, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Beethoven Poisoned by Lead


Lewis, Darcy, Strings


More than any other composer, Ludwig van Beethoven embodied the stereotype of a tortured genius who produced sublime music despite-or perhaps because ofintense physical and mental anguish. Now, state-of-the-art testing has unveiled the truth behind much of Beethoven's torment. In October 2000, scientists announced that a lock of hair snipped from the great composer after his death in 1827 revealed a concentration of lead 100 times greater than the levels commonly found in Americans today.

"We are absolutely certain that Beethoven suffered from acute lead poisoning," says Dr. William Walsh, director of the Beethoven Research Project. "We believe he experienced a severe toxic exposure to lead sometime between the ages of 18 and 22, when he began exhibiting the symptoms of lead poisoning that plagued him thereafter and may have contributed to his death."

Walsh, an internationally renowned expert in hair analysis, also directs the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Illinois. In reviewing his lab's last 6,200 cases, Walsh found only 11 individuals who had as much lead in their bodies as Beethoven did. "They all exhibited depression, abdominal pain, irritability, and personality changes-the same symptoms as Beethoven," he says.

Walsh's expertise was tapped five years ago by the lock's owners, retired real estate developer Ira Brilliant and urological surgeon Che Guevara. They bought the lock (which consists of 582 strands of three- to six-inch brown and gray hair) at a Sotheby's auction in 1994 for $7,300.

The tale of the hair's whereabouts between leaving Beethoven's head and arriving on the auction block is a fascinating one, and has been recounted in Russell Martin's new book Beethoven's Hair (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $24.95). Clipped by famed musician Ferdinand Hiller, the lock somehow ended up with Danish physician Kay Fremming, known for trying to save Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

Martin's book also discusses the methodology and findings of chemist Dr. Walter McCrone of Chicago, who, early in the research process, identified elevated lead levels by using a technique that destroyed tested hairs. Walsh then searched for two years to find a non-destructive method before turning to the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago. Physicists there performed advanced photon source analysis that quantified the lead levels without damaging the hair. …

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