Beethoven and lead exposure

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: March 7th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Roll over, Beethoven, and give Tchaikovsky the news.

Scientists have discovered that Ludwig van Beethoven likely died of lead poisoning. Researchers at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory used a powerful X-ray beam to study six of Beethoven’s hairs as well as fragments taken from his skull. Lead poisoning had been suspected as a culprit in the composer’s demise in 1827, at the age of fifty-six.

The research offered the first definitive evidence supporting the theory. It also confirmed the absence of mercury, dispelling the notion that Beethoven had syphilis, then commonly treated with agents containing the toxic heavy metal.

Scientists used subatomic particles which at high speeds emit X-rays that can be aimed at tiny samples like hair. As the rays strike atoms in the sample, they knock electrons out of place, creating a short burst of energy with a telltale pattern. The types of atoms present can then be determined by the pattern detected.

The musical mastermind suffered serious health problems throughout his life. The symptoms worsened as he grew older and were characteristic of lead poisoning, including severe stomach distress. As it turns out, the study revealed many atoms in Beethoven’s hair and bone samples were indeed lead atoms.

The mystery remains, however, as to the source of the lead exposure. Some speculate about the possible role of wine consumed from lead cups. Others cite nineteenth-century medical therapies, often a cocktail replete with heavy metals of one sort or another, or housed in leaded glass bottles.