Beethoven’s death (Forensic Science)
Born in Bonn, Germany, in mid-December, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria, where he had lived since 1792. Ferdinand V. Hiller, a German admirer who visited the composer’s deathbed, received a lock of Beethoven’s hair that was later enclosed in a locket inscribed with names and date. This keepsake remained in the Hiller family until the 1930’s, when the family, which was Jewish, was forced to flee Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The lock of hair then became the property of a Danish physician who aided Jewish refugees; the physician’s family had possession of the hair until 1994, when it was offered for auction.
The hair was purchased by a consortium of members of the American Beethoven Society. Arizona urological surgeon Dr. Alfredo Guevara, the principal purchaser, retained 27 percent of the hair (160 individual hairs), and the remainding 422 strands were donated to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University in Northern California. Guevara wanted to know if forensic technology could show the cause of Beethoven’s poor health and death. In addition to becoming totally deaf, Beethoven suffered from eye disorders, liver disease, and a broad range of gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms. When an autopsy was performed on his body on March 27, 1827, visual inspection showed abnormalities of the liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, and kidneys.
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Forensic Analysis (Forensic Science)
Dr. Werner Baumgartner of Psychemedics Corporation’s laboratories in Los Angeles examined twenty hairs to determine whether Beethoven received relief from opiates during his final illness. A radioimmunoassay found no evidence of opiates. William Walsh speculated that Beethoven, who continued to compose music until very near the time of his death, rejected substances that would dull his mind.
McCrone Research Center in Chicago performed side-by-side analyses of two hairs from Beethoven and three samples from living subjects, using a scanning electron microscope, energy-dispersive spectroscopy, and scanning ion microscope-mass spectrometry. Using nondestructive synchrotron X-ray beams, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory tested six Beethoven hair strands in a side-by-side comparison with hair from a control group and a glass film of known lead composition. Both facilities found heavy lead concentrations. Beethoven’s hair revealed an average lead content of 60 parts per million; living Americans, in comparison, average 0.6 parts per million. Researchers concluded that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning, or plumbism.
In Beethoven’s time, lead was used in pewter cups and dinnerware as well as in paint, cosmetics, medical preparations, and food coloring. Wine bottles were sealed (plumbed) with lead to keep the contents from turning sour. In an online interview on December 6, 2005, on...
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Controversy (Forensic Science)
A number of researchers have noted that not all questions concerning Beethoven’s death can be answered through hair and bone analysis. They question whether lead poisoning or any single problem explains Beethoven’s ill health, which was markedly worse than that of most of his contemporaries, or could be conclusively named as the sole, primary, or immediate cause of the composer’s death. Concerns about the relatively simple explanation of lead poisoning begin with Beethoven’s family history. In his early years, Beethoven was exposed to the tuberculosis that killed his mother and one brother. His father and his paternal grandmother were incapacitated by alcohol abuse, suggesting inherited alcohol intolerance. Some have speculated that Beethoven may have overused alcohol; observers at the time were divided, but consumption of alcoholic beverages was high in his lifetime, a period when urban water supplies, including Vienna’s Danube River, were badly contaminated with human and animal waste. (No connection had yet been made between contaminated water and disease.)
Peter J. Davies has raised the possibility that Beethoven suffered from adult-onset diabetes mellitus, which was then uncontrollable. Deborah Hayden has noted that if Beethoven had been treated for syphilis in early manhood, the treatment would leave no evidence at his death decades later. In 1796, Beethoven contracted typhus, and this illness may have undermined...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Davies, Peter J. Beethoven in Person: His Deafness, Illnesses, and Death. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Includes a time line of the composer’s symptoms, information on the credentials of his physicians, critiques of the various suggested possible causes for his many symptoms, and a glossary of medical terms.
Emsley, John. Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Volume devoted to the use of poisons in murder includes a brief account of the Beethoven findings. Also discusses the historical use of lead in common substances and the effects of lead exposure on the human body.
Hayden, Deborah. Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Argues that Beethoven may have had both lead poisoning and syphilis.
Mai, François Martin. Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. Includes information about Beethoven’s physicians and treatment and a timetable of his symptoms. Suggests the possibility that the conductor suffered from liver cirrhosis or infectious hepatitis and bacterial peritonitis, among other disorders.
Martin, Russell. Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved. New York: Broadway Books, 2000. Describes the history of the famous lock of hair, from Beethoven’s...
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