This weekend marks the 235th anniversary of the birth of composer Ludwig van Beethoven. But it’s his death over 178 years ago that made headlines last week when researchers supposedly “confirmed” that Beethoven died from lead poisoning.
As you may imagine, such sensational way-after-the-fact “news” begs further inquiry.
“Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have found massive amounts of lead in bone fragments belonging to 19th Century composer Ludwig von Beethoven, confirming the cause of his years of chronic debilitating illness,” touted the researchers’ media release.
And a high-tech angle adds apparent credibility to their claim: “The bone fragments, confirmed by DNA testing to have come from Beethoven's body, were scanned by X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, which provides the most brilliant X-rays in the Western Hemisphere,” the media release stated.
Now, I don’t doubt that the researchers found “elevated” levels of lead in Beethoven’s skull, but that’s a long way from concluding that lead caused or even contributed to his death.
First, the researchers don’t seem to know how much lead was actually measured in the bone fragments. As the Washington Post’s Rick Weiss reported, “technical problems kept the team from getting a precise number from [the bone] samples.”
The researchers stated that their new findings “confirm the earlier work done on [Beethoven’s] hair samples” – which reportedly had lead concentrations on the order of 60 parts per million (ppm).
But there are several significant problems with the researchers’ reliance on the hair lead measurements.
First, hair lead measurements are not reliable indicators of exposure to lead, according to a 1991 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled, “Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children.” And German researchers have pointed out that, “trace element content of hair does not correlate with the trace element concentrations in metabolically important tissues.”
So the measurement of “elevated” lead levels in Beethoven’s hair doesn’t necessarily indicate that he had toxic lead levels in his vital organs.
Next, it’s not exactly clear that Beethoven’s hair lead level was dangerously “elevated.”
Hair lead levels in the U.S. have been measured at 100 ppm in children and 155 in adults with no reported clinical health effects, according to JE Fergusson’s 1990 book entitled, “The Heavy Elements: Environmental Impact and Health Effects.”
Beethoven’s hair lead measurements, in fact, have little meaning and certainly can’t be used to bolster any alleged import of the bone fragment “measurements” – which are of dubious significance in their own right.
A researcher reported in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine (May 1975) that, in his postmortem study of 129 individuals, “Bone lead concentrations increased with age in both sexes, more especially in male subjects and in dense bone, varying between mean values of 2-16 ppm in the ribs of children to over 50 ppm in the dense [skull] bones of elderly male adults… Present levels of lead in the environment are not considered to be a hazard to the health of the population in general.”
Since the 50 ppm skull bone measurements in elderly males seems to be of little concern and that lead level may very well be consistent with the “elevated” lead concentrations reportedly observed in Beethoven’s skull fragments – based on the researchers own comparison of the hair and bone fragment results – it’s quite likely that lead had nothing to do with Beethoven’s death.
So what was the cause of Beethoven’s death? No one really knows. But based on records of an autopsy performed the day after Beethoven died, it seems that he experienced kidney failure that may have been caused by his overuse of analgesic powdered willow bark and alcohol.
Even lead alarmist Herb Needleman doubts that lead poisoning was Beethoven’s downfall, observing that composing near the end of his life argues against the lead hypothesis. “Lead makes you stupid and he wasn't stupid,” Needleman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in April 2002.
The Washington Post report of the Argonne study quoted William Meredith, a Beethoven scholar from San Jose State University as stating, “There have been many doctors who have theorized about what ailed Beethoven. But [the Argonne test result] is actual science versus someone else’s description of symptoms.”
But Meredith has it all wrong. A closer look indicates that the Argonne researchers’ conclusion seems to be just another overzealous interpretation of dubious measurements in hopes of sensational headlines. Scholars ought to be wary of such junk science-fueled myth-making.