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Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

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Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

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Ludwig van Beethoven died of lead poisoning. That, at least, is the finding of the Beethoven lead study. Bill Walsh, director of research at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois, was the lead investigator on a team that worked out of the US Department of Energy laboratory in Argonne, Illinois. He joins us from there.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Walsh.

Dr. BILL WALSH: (Director of Research, Pfeiffer Treatment Center): Well, hello.

SIEGEL: I've read that you analyzed some of Beethoven's hair and pieces of his skull. He died in 1827. So first question: How do you know that those really are bits of Beethoven?

Dr. WALSH: Well, the hair and the skull bones came from different sources, and the--we were not convinced they were totally authentic until we had some DNA results that just recently came out of Austria that found that--with the limited DNA information they were able to get from the hair and the bones, that, in fact, there is a match that's convincing enough that we are certain now that this is truly the relics of Ludwig van Beethoven.

SIEGEL: Is there a Beethoven descendent whom you were able to compare this to, to be sure that it's Beethoven?

Dr. WALSH: Unfortunately, no. There are no known living descendents of Beethoven.

SIEGEL: Then, again, how do you know it's Beethoven?

Dr. WALSH: Well, because the hair sample of Beethoven came from a completely different source. And the Beethoven Journal just this last week published a long article detailing the chain of custody of the skull bones and especially when the two samples by DNA seem to come from the same person.

SIEGEL: The bones and the hair?

Dr. WALSH: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Well, what did you find in those remains that lead you to conclude that Beethoven died of lead poisoning?

Dr. WALSH: We actually had no idea that he might be lead poisoned, and we did an analysis that looked at about 30 or 40 different elements. The only element that we were really interested in originally was mercury, because there had been beliefs and published theories that he might have died of syphilis 'cause his miserable health seemed to be consistent with that. And if he had, he would have had mercury medications at the time. And what we found--every element we looked at was fairly typical in concentration, except the lead was extremely high in both forms.

SIEGEL: How might he have ingested so much lead?

Dr. WALSH: Well, the timing and how he got it is not really known, but we do know that he was terribly ill most of his life, starting in his early 20s. Now he had--there are many possibilities. He loved to drink wine. Wine at that time was quite loaded with lead, and they know that he drank out of a favorite goblet that had a lot of lead in it. But there are other possibilities.

He also had a three- or four-month stay at a spa, where he bathed in mineral waters and drank the waters, and that's a possibility. But there's also the possibility that he wasn't really exposed seriously at all. In the work that I've done studying more than 20,000 individuals with behavior disorders and such, there are quite a few people who, because of genetics, are hypersensitive to lead. And so the same--you know, a significant exposure that the whole population might have been exposed to might have devastated Beethoven and not really done that much to the rest of the population.

SIEGEL: That his body just might have retained more of what other people were exposed to.

Dr. WALSH: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Now I looked on a Web site, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, or jointly sponsored by the NIH, and here are some symptoms of lead poisoning in adults: irritability, aggressive behavior, low appetite and energy, difficulty sleeping, headaches, reduced sensations, anemia, constipation, abdominal pain and cramping. And then very high levels of lead exposure may cause vomiting, staggering gait, muscle weakness, seizures or coma. It sounds like Beethoven to you?

Dr. WALSH: He had virtually all of that, except there's no evidence of seizures or glaucoma. Everything you said describes his life for the last 30 years of his life.

SIEGEL: If you call that living, my gosh.

Dr. WALSH: It was--he was in total misery, and he became a very peculiar person. His irritability was very great, and he didn't bathe much. And he was a recluse; he had almost no friends.

SIEGEL: Here was a man who, from what you found, did not succumb to some subtle killer. He would have been in pain and discomfort for years and years and years of his life. And yet those very same years were years of not just phenomenal productivity but of genius, of composing 7th, 8th, 9th symphonies, all the late quartets, a brilliant time in his life.

Dr. WALSH: Apparently, he never had even a single day where he was OK. He was in discomfort and pain and misery all the time from the time he was about--certainly from the time he was 29 until the day he died.

SIEGEL: You know, there's a beautiful movement--I don't know if you're familiar with it or if you're a great Beethoven fan--from one of his string quartets, which is a "Hymn of Thanksgiving," a hymn to God from an invalid, presumably one who has recovered. And...

Dr. WALSH: Well, perhaps that was Beethoven hoping for such a thing. Maybe it was a prayer in a way hoping that he would be recovered.

SIEGEL: Dr. Bill Walsh, who is director of research at Pfeiffer Treatment Center and the lead investigator of the team that has examined remains of Ludwig van Beethoven and concluded that he died in 1827 of lead poisoning.

Dr. Walsh, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Dr. WALSH: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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