Ever since Ludwig van Beethoven was buried in 1827, scientists have struggled to pinpoint the exact cause of the famous composer’s death, but new research may help to unravel that mystery.
The classical composer is thought to have suffered from common symptoms of lead exposure, such as irritability, colic and kidney failure – a combination which is thought to have killed him.
However, Dr. Andrew Todd, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, has determined that it is unlikely that lead exposure caused his renal failure after measuring the amount of the toxin in two of Beethoven’s skull fragments.
"Ninety-five percent of lead in the adult body is stored in bone, where it stays for years, even after death," Todd said. "Measuring the amount of lead in Beethoven’s bone fragments allows us to reach back through time to measure his lead exposure during life.”
Todd used a technique called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to examine the remains, and what he found was the larger skull fragment only had 12 micrograms of lead per gram of bone mineral.
“For someone who was Beethoven’s age, we would expect more than that; one comparison dataset predicts 21 micrograms of lead per gram of bone mineral,” Todd said.
Fragments from Beethoven’s skull were previously examined in 2000 at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. However, Todd’s work also examined the complete thickness of a much larger fragment of Beethoven’s skull.
This project was a collaboration between Todd and Dr. William Meredith, Director of The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University. Meredith, who brought the skull fragments to New York for this test, expected Todd's measurements to reveal higher levels of lead because earlier tests had shown them to be higher-than normal, according to the New York Times.
Further testing of small fragments is underway and will be published.