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Experts discordant on whether Beethoven had lead poisoning

Thursday, April 04, 2002

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Say Beethoven and people think of a deaf composer of heart-pounding music who had a wild mane of hair.

Recently, some ardent fans have been raising questions about what that hair says about Beethoven.

An analysis of a lock of the composer's hair, shorn from his head the day after his death in 1827, suggests something that historians hadn't previously suspected: Beethoven had lead poisoning.

Beethoven's health problems -- chronic abdominal pain, gout and kidney stones -- could be symptoms of lead poisoning, says expert Dr. Herb Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh. Deafness is much less likely.

"What made him deaf was almost certainly neural," says Beethoven scholar Robert Winter. "It occurred in both ears in a gradual way [from 1798 to 1818]."

The fact that Beethoven was still composing near the end of his life argues against lead poisoning. "Lead makes you stupid and he wasn't stupid," Needleman says.

The hair strands belong in part to Dr. Alfredo "Che" Guevara and Ira Brilliant, members of the American Beethoven Society. They purchased the hair for $7,300 at a well-publicized Sotheby's auction in 1994.

William Walsh, chief scientist at the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Ill., had the hair analyzed by independent researcher Walter McCrone, who is known for investigating Napoleon's arsenic exposure and examining the Shroud of Turin.

McCrone found that Beethoven's hair contained 40 times more lead than is seen in today's general population.

Walsh then went to Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to test the strands with the Advanced Photon Source, in which an X-ray beam is produced by electrons accelerated close to the speed of light.

Walsh's findings were presented in October 2000 and popularized by Russell Martin's book "Beethoven's Hair."

But "scientific analysis of hair is not something that has a totally solid reputation," Walsh acknowledges. Skeptics have pointed out that there are gaps in the history of the lock of hair, especially during wartime.

Walsh intends to examine skull remains that were stored after Beethoven's body was exhumed in the mid-1800s.

"If they could confirm it was his, bone would be the only way you could look at [lead levels] with any certainty," says Dr. Edward Krenzelok, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital.

"It is almost certain that everyone at that time had lead contamination of one kind or another," notes Winter, who is skeptical about the lead poisoning theory.

To Winter, it's a "cult of collectors" that searches for pieces of Beethoven's life.

Ira Brilliant, a Phoenix-based aficionado who helped buy the hair, had a quick response when asked why people are fascinated by the composer's health.

"Because he's Beethoven," he says. "You cannot ignore what he means to many people."

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