Beethoven Skull Fragments Point to Lead Poisoning

From Reuters

An analysis of skull fragments from German composer Ludwig van Beethoven confirms that he suffered from lead poisoning for many years, a possible cause for his dour demeanor, researchers said Thursday.

“Beethoven had hoped that some day it would be revealed why he acted the way he did,” said Paul Kaufmann, the owner of the skull fragments, who loaned them to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.

“He was seen as angry and uncooperative at times. This finding helps shed some light on that,” he said. “Now we know that this was the reason for his suffering.”

Lead poisoning can lead to headaches, fatigue, concentration problems and other health issues.


Analysis in the late 1990s from a lock of Beethoven’s hair indicated that he had lead poisoning at the time of his death, but the latest skull analysis revealed that the condition existed over a long period of time.

“You can’t draw any conclusions from the hair sample. This is a more significant finding,” Beethoven scholar and biographer Maynard Solomon, who was not involved in the skull testing, said in a telephone interview.

DNA tests confirmed that the hair and skull fragments did indeed come from the composer whose 5th Symphony starts with perhaps the best-known four-note motif in music history.

Scholars still do not know how Beethoven got lead poisoning, but William Meredith, director of the center, theorized that it was from lead pipes used to carry drinking water in Beethoven’s time.

Some historians believe lead poisoning could have caused Beethoven’s dramatic hearing loss as he grew older, but researchers said Thursday that they had not uncovered any evidence of a link between the two conditions.

The skull fragments were originally taken during an exhumation and autopsy of Beethoven’s corpse in 1863 and were passed down through four generations. Kaufmann, of Danville, Calif., obtained the two 2.75-inch pieces from his grandmother, who died in France in 1993.

The Center for Beethoven Studies is not displaying the fragments.

“We’re dealing with human remains,” said Noam Cook, an ethicist at the center. “Some people and some cultures could be offended.”


Beethoven died in 1827 from liver disease.