Skip to comments.Lead poisoning made Beethoven grumpy
Posted on 12/07/2005 4:05:48 PM PST by neverdem
Sophisticated new tests confirm that Ludwig van Beethoven suffered severe lead poisoning, which could explain his cranky personality.
But lead poisoning probably is not the reason why the great composer lost his hearing, researchers announced Tuesday.
In 2000, tests of Beethoven's hair at southwest suburban Argonne National Laboratory showed he had lead concentrations roughly 100 times higher than levels found in healthy adults today.
But hair analysis is not scientifically conclusive. Moreover, skeptics said, hair samples used in the test could have been contaminated by, for example, hair powder, dirt or grease.
But a new test at Argonne, done on a skull fragment, confirms the presence of lead in Beethoven's body. The test was conducted by Bill Walsh of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville and Argonne researchers.
Cause of condition unknown
For the first time, said William Meredith of the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University, "we have actual scientific evidence about something that either caused Beethoven's death or contributed to it."
But what caused the lead poisoning remains a mystery. Among the theories, all unproven: Beethoven drank wine or ate fish contaminated with lead. There was lead in his favorite pewter cup. He was poisoned by drinking and bathing in mineral water at a spa. Or perhaps Beethoven had a defect that made his body unable to remove lead.
Whatever the cause, lead poisoning likely was responsible for Beethoven's prickly personalty, Walsh said. Beethoven was famously irritable and suspicious, and had few friends.
"His music was revered, but he was not revered," Walsh said.
'He went to so many doctors'
Lead poisoning also could explain Beethoven's chronic abdominal pain and the severe kidney and liver damage that likely caused his death, Walsh said.
"He went to so many doctors and nobody helped him, so he finally gave up," Walsh said.
The tests were done on Argonne's $500 million Advanced Photon Source, which provides the most brilliant X-rays of any machine in the Western Hemisphere.
A fragment of Beethoven's skull was compared to a skull fragment from another person from the same time period. The Beethoven sample had much more lead.
The Beethoven bone fragment belongs to California businessman Paul Kaufman. Kaufman's great-great uncle was an Austrian doctor who kept fragments after Beethoven's body was exhumed. The bones were passed down through the generations to Kaufman.
A separate set of tests done at other centers indicate that DNA in the skull fragments matches DNA from a sample of Beethoven's hair taken a day after his death.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN 1770-1827
Best known works: His Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies; an opera, "Fidelio," and a religious composition, Missa Solemnis.
Most famous notes: The ominous "bom bom bom bommmm" that begins his Fifth Symphony.
Other works: Besides the nine symphonies, they include five piano concertos, a violin concerto, several overtures, 16 string quartets, 10 violin sonatas and 35 piano sonatas.
Mystery lover: Beethoven never married. But after he died, friends found a love letter he wrote to a never-identified woman he called "immortal beloved."
His own man: Rather than work as a hired gun for the church or aristocracy, Beethoven supported himself with performances, sales of his works, etc.
Couldn't hear his own music: Beethoven began losing his hearing in his late 20s and was completely deaf during his final years, including when he wrote and conducted his great Ninth Symphony.
Is it time for you to take your medication? Go ahead, we will wait.
Thank you also.
I certainly made a blunder.
Dude, you really need a to take your medication.
But what caused the lead poisoning remains a mystery.The most likely explanation I've heard is that he did not suffer from greater exposure to lead than others of his day. It's that his body was unable to tolerate and process it, leading him to suffer it where others, similarly exposed, did not.
I would imagine that most people of reasonable means had similar lead levels in those days. Pewter cups, fine well decorated homes, rudimentary plumbing, etc. All of meant exposure to lead.
FReepmail me if you want on or off my health and science ping list.
> Thank you also.
No, thank you :)
Beethoven found out he was going deaf in 1798, and in 1801 wrote a suicidal letter to his brothers. And then he went on with life and his career and was extremely popular till 1815 when he began to be eclipsed by Rossini. Towards the end of his life he made a comeback with the Choral Symphony, and the story of how he had to be turned around to see the applause always brings tears to my eyes. Sure LVB was eccentric. He was always in love, needed a wife's care, but never married. Who knows what killed him. Bethoven remained brilliantly productive for 27 years when most people would quit. What an inspiration...and then there's the music.
Interesting take on the Heiligenstadt testament in the Solomon biography, have you looked at it? Also, I never got the impression he was eclipsed by Rossini, in estimation as an artist. His injunction to Rossini to "stick with the buffa" was well known. Around that time, though, he went through his "dry period" of several years where he wrote nothing but schlock. When he came out of it in his late years, I don't think he was even trying for popularity, but something else.
I think it may have been in his genes.
For all we know most of what we read about him today could have come from the Vienna National Enquirer of yesteryear.
> Also, I never got the impression he was eclipsed by Rossini, in estimation as an artist.
In popularity I meant--or so I've read. Rossini was quite new, and sounds so. Thanks for recommending the Solomon biography.
> Around that time, though, he went through his "dry period" of several years where he wrote nothing but schlock.
Kind of up and down I guess. Battle Symphony (Op. 91 1813), yes schlock. But the 7th Symphony (Op. 92, same year) pure magic. But till 1818 for Hammerklavier and the 20s gave Missa Solemnis the great final years.
I wonder what the genotype distribution was in Europe in Beethoven's time and did it have a causal effect an human behavior in the past in a similar proportions? Or at all?
I guess I'm wondering that even though we know lead "poisoning" occurred in the past, was it a big deal? Or is it currently being elevated to an importance in the past like global warming is today? Basically a lot of hype.
He irritated many, many landlords in the city of Vienna. I know this, because I visited several of his apartments from whence he was kicked out for doing things like pouring water over his head to keep himself awake. Of course the water dripped down through the floor of his apartment to the space of the tenant(s) below him (the cheaper apts. in those pre-elevator days were always upstairs...).
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