Study Suggests Beethoven Died of Lead Poisoning - by His Doctor

Classic Arts News   Study Suggests Beethoven Died of Lead Poisoning - by His Doctor
Two years ago, studies of a few of Ludwig van Beethoven's surviving remains — some strands from a lock of hair and a couple of skull fragments — offered persuasive evidence that the composer had died of lead poisoning. A new study argues that much of that lead came from medicine administered by Beethoven's own doctor during his final illness.

Christian Reiter, a forensic scientist of the Medical University of Vienna, published his findings last week in The Beethoven Journal, published by San Jose State University's Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies.

"Beethoven's death was due to the treatments he was given by his own physician," Reiter told The Independent of London. "The treatments amounted to lethal doses that permeated Beethoven's ailing liver and ultimately killed him."

Several locks of the composer's hair, originally taken as keepsakes while the body lay in state, have survived, including one at San Jose State which was acquired several years ago at a Sotheby's auction.

In 2005, a team at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago used powerful X-rays to analyze strands of the San Jose hair and the skull fragments. As The Washington Post and other outlets reported at the time, the analysis revealed levels of lead 100 times higher than normal in the remains, indicating that lead poisoning may have caused or exacerbated the cirrhosis from which Beethoven was suffering when he died in 1827. (A post-mortem found that the composer's liver was "like leather.")

The likely sources of the lead were thought to be the sweet wine of which Beethoven was fond (and which was often fortified with lead particles at that time), eating or drinking utensils, or perhaps spa water laden with the metal.

Reiter took a sample of the composer's hair to Vienna University's Institute for Chemical Analysis, where two strands were burned with a minute laser beam and the resulting smoke analyzed with a spectrograph. He found "several peaks where the concentration of lead rose pretty massively," as he told the Associated Press; since hair grows at a measurable rate, he was able to correlate those peaks with the timing of particular treatments by Beethoven's physician, Andreas Wawruch.

The deaf, depressed 56-year-old composer spent his last four months of life on a dirty straw mattress in a Vienna apartment, lying in agonized misery as he battled pneumonia, his skin yellow with jaundice.

Wawruch gave Beethoven an "anti-inflammatory" medicine to treat the lungs — from which fluid drained into Beethoven's abdomen, so constricting his diaphragm that he had trouble breathing. Reiter believes that the medicine likely contained lead salts, which would have aggravated Beethoven's liver and produced yet more fluid. Wawruch is known to have lanced the composer's abdomen four times within three months, draining off "gallons" of liquid.

"Every time when his abdomen was punctured," Reiter told the AP, "we have an increase of the concentration of lead in the hair." He believes it most likely that Wawruch coated the puncture wound with a lead-paste poultice to prevent infection.

"Dr. Wawruch was acting to the best of his knowledge and with a clear conscience, according to the medical standards of the time," Reiter told The Independent, "but as soon as the body began to reabsorb the lead from the poultices, terminal liver failure could no longer be prevented. The lead doses were not poisonous enough to kill a healthy person, but what Wawruch clearly did not know was that his treatment was attacking an already diseased liver."

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