In the days following the death of Ludwig van Beethoven, friends and admirers came to view his body—and clip his hair for keepsakes. Recent chemical analysis of one of those purloined locks has now led scientists to conclude that medical treatment might have hastened Beethoven's demise by worsening his lead poisoning.
Four months before his death in March 1827, Beethoven began suffering from excessive abdominal swelling, possibly due to cirrhosis. To drain the fluid, his physician, Andreas Wawruch, punctured his abdomen with a needle. Researchers have known since 2005 that Beethoven also suffered from severe lead poisoning. The most recent study of his hair, conducted by forensic scientist Christian Reiter of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, links the two problems.
As hair grows, it absorbs substances, including lead, from the bloodstream. For his research, Reiter analyzed two hairs with a spectrograph and created a daily diary of Beethoven's internal chemistry during his final 4 months. The composer received abdominal punctures four times on his deathbed, draining between 7.7 and 14 liters of fluid from his body each time. The amount of lead in the composer's hair spiked after each abdominal puncture. The correlation suggests that the palliative measure worsened the lead poisoning, and Reiter blames the lead salts used to clean the wound as a likely culprit. Reiter speculates that the lead worsened the composer's cirrhosis and hastened his death. The English translation of his study appears in the most recent issue of The Beethoven Journal.
"The medical doctor actually may have killed [Beethoven] with lead poisoning," says William Walsh, director of research at the Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois. Walsh, who orchestrated an earlier chemical analysis of Beethoven's hair, has spent 30 years conducting forensic analysis of hair.
Reiter reported lower lead levels for the end of Beethoven's life than did Walsh's studies. As a result, Walsh says, the two scientists will work together to reach consensus about possible lead levels. "There's limits on what you can do with hair," he says. "There's a lot of data that shows that chemical analysis becomes completely unreliable when you get a few inches from the scalp."