Investigating Beethoven’s Death

December 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: What we’ve long known about Ludwig van Beethoven: He made incredible music and he suffered through illness for much of his adult life. What hasn’t been known is the nature of his illness, and what eventually killed him in 1827.

Today, through an unusual x-ray experiment done at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory a team of scientists confirmed that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning.

Here to tell us about it is the director of that project. William Walsh is an expert in forensic analysis and director of research at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois.

And welcome to you. You used hair and bone samples, I understand, to do this work. How did they lead you to the findings about lead poisoning?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, we had the major relics of Beethoven that still exist in the world, both the fragments his skull and hair samples. And we really didn’t know what to expect going in.

But after we did very careful chemical analysis, we found that both samples which had come from different sources, they both were the only unusual thing was that they were both extraordinarily high in lead concentration.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these samples, is there a way to authenticate them? Are you sure that these are actually from Beethoven?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, we did this work a few years ago actually and didn’t report the bone results because we were not sure that it was authentically Beethoven’s skull.

But what we found was that after doing DNA analysis of both the bone and the hair, we found that with the amount of DNA material that we were able to harvest from this very old — these very old samples, we were able to find that we do have a match and that we are now certain that these were authentically from Ludwig van Beethoven the composer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now I saw this technology at the Argonne Lab described as the most powerful x-ray beam in the western hemisphere. Can you describe in layman’s terms for us how it works and what it did?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, it’s really a big physics machine, and it has a number of physics machines in tandem but what it amounts to is there’s a large ring that produces electrons that are very close to the speed of light, really 99.999 times the speed of light, extraordinarily fast electrons.

And when these things change direction, they produce extremely bright light. And these little tiny beams of light that are produced are what we used for the analysis.

The light is the brightest light in the solar system. It’s 100 times brighter than the surface of the Sun, and everything that little beam of light touches you get a very accurate chemical analysis. It’s really a remarkable facility. I consider it is the seventh wonder of the scientific world really.

JEFFREY BROWN: And another layman’s question: Why do you need such a high-tech, such high-tech equipment to do this kind of work?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, when I first received Beethoven’s relics about five years ago, I searched the world really to find out where the greatest technology was because we had very, very small samples.

We also wanted to do non-destructive testing. The owners of the samples had asked me to return these samples to them in exactly the same condition that they were — that they were received. And that was a real technical challenge.

I searched Europe and all of the United States and eventually found that the highest technology was 20 minutes from my house at the Argonne National Laboratory, what’s known as the advanced photon source.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean because other x-ray technology tends to destroy the sample?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well there’s that but also them don’t have the ability to accurately analyze extraordinarily tiny samples.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does this add to our knowledge of Beethoven, of the life that he led and the way that he died?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, I believe that this solves the medical mystery. Beethoven was a fairly normal teenager. He was a very well-known prodigy and they thought perhaps the greatest pianist in all of Europe by the time he was 19.

However, something terrible happened to him physically between the ages of 20 and 24. He became extraordinarily ill. And he had tremendous abdominal pain and misery. He went to many doctors and basically suffered with that condition through the rest of his life.

It was so serious and so severe that by the time he was 29, he wrote a letter to his brother indicating that he had contemplated suicide and that he eventually had decided to — that he believed that God had created him for this great music and that he was going to endure this terrible suffering and produce good music.

JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t know still how he would have gotten lead poisoning. Are there some leading theories?

WILLIAM WALSH: Yes, there are some leading theories. The one thing we do know is that the very clear symptoms of lead poisoning started before the age of 24.

So Beethoven historians — now that we’ve got this information that he was truly lead poisoned decisively — they’re now starting to study what’s known about his life then, trying to find out what the source is.

However, at the clinic that I work at and some of the work we’ve done, we’ve studied a lot of behavior disordered and autistic and mentally ill people.

We find that about 5 percent of the human population has a metal metabolism disorder that makes them extraordinarily sensitive to toxic metals like lead and so Beethoven may not have had an unusual exposure to lead; he may have simply had a medical condition that prevented him from excreting the lead so the lead wouldn’t leave and just built up in his body. We’ve seen hundreds of people with that condition here in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I had to wonder in reading about this today why the U.S. Energy Department’s lab would be doing this kind of work. It surely was not out to look for what happened to Beethoven.

I mean, are there other practical aspects to this research that might have applications for the rest of us?

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, there certainly are. When we first did this work, this facility had only been in operation for a year or so. And, for example, the — my chief collaborator at Argonne was Dr. Ken Kemner. And his work is in biological sciences. He used this sort of miniaturized chemical analysis of Beethoven’s hair.

He took it a step 100 times more nano, more tiny analysis bacteria. And he’s studying how bacteria can actually take lead and other toxics out of the environment.

For myself, I’ve now — I’m now studying tiny brain cells and brain tissue for trying to understand the causes of autism and Alzheimer’s Disease so there are a lot of very practical applications.

Now, the Department of Energy — the reason why this is something good for them is it adds to the capability of researchers and the other thing it really was only six hours throughout — a six-hour experiment which really was only a tiny fraction of the time involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: William Walsh, thanks for explaining to us.

WILLIAM WALSH: Well, thank you very much.