By MARTHA IRVINE
ARGONNE, Ill. – An analysis of a lock of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair suggests lead poisoning could explain the erratic genius’ lifelong ailments, his strange behavior, his death, maybe even his deafness.
The four-year analysis of the hair – apparently snipped after the composer’s death at age 56 in 1827 – has turned up a concentration of lead 100 times the levels commonly found in people today, according to researchers at the Health Research Institute in suburban Chicago, where the hair was tested.
That means it is all but certain that the composer suffered from lead poisoning, also known as plumbism, the researchers said.
“It was a surprise, but it stood out like a sore thumb in the analysis,” said William Walsh, director of the institute’s Beethoven research project.
Scientists initially were searching for mercury, a common treatment for syphilis in Beethoven’s day. The absence of mercury supports the recent consensus of scholars who believe Beethoven did not have syphilis.
In rare cases, lead poisoning causes deafness, but scientists remain unsure if that was what caused Beethoven’s hearing loss.
“So that’s really the million-dollar question,” said William Meredith, director of the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.
He said he hopes further testing will be done on other locks of hair from the Beethoven house in Bonn, Germany, which has several strands that were taken five or more years before he died.
Lead poisoning may also explain what some described as dramatic mood swings on Beethoven’s part.
“If you asked friends, they’d say he could be gruff but he had a great sense of humor,” Meredith said. “Others say he was unpredictable – very erratic behavior – that you’d never know what to expect when you’d visit him.”
The Health Research Institute scientists said that Beethoven’s lead exposure came as an adult but that the source of the lead is unclear, though one possibility is the mineral water he swam in and drank during his stays at spas.
The conclusions were based on chemical analysis by the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago and images taken at Argonne National Laboratory using an electron accelerator that creates the most detailed X-rays available today.
Many mourners took hair from Beethoven while the body was on view in the Vienna apartment where he died of pneumonia and complications of abdominal problems, which are a common symptoms of lead poisoning.
“He was shorn. He was practically bald when he was buried,” said Ira Brilliant, founder of the Center of Beethoven Studies.
Brilliant and Alfredo Guevara, a surgeon from Nogales, Ariz., bought the hair in 1994 for $7,300 at Sotheby’s auction house in London. In all, there were 582 strands – 3 inches to 6 inches long – that were gray and two shades of brown.
The analysis did not find drug metabolites, which indicate Beethoven avoided painkillers during his long and painful death.
“This implies that he decided to keep his mind clear for his music,” Walsh said.
Even Beethoven himself wanted to know what had made him so ill since his early 20s. He wrote a letter to his brothers in 1802 asking them to have doctors find the cause of his abdominal pain after his death.
“We feel that we’re fulfilling part of his wishes, albeit 199 years later,” Walsh said.
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