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article imageRoll Over, Beethoven: Researchers Ponder Your Lead Count

By Peter Dietrich     Nov 25, 2000 in Lifestyle
Leipzig (dpa) - The sensational news quickly circled the globe: The composer of immortal musical works suffered - and finally died - from lead poisoning.
U.S. scientists who spent four years examining a lock of hair of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1828) recently issued results of chemical analyses and special graphic studies of 422 strands of hair, showing a lead content that was 100 times today's normal levels.
For Leipzig toxicologist Reinhard Ludewig, the lead poisoning conclusion was, simply put, old hat.
The 77-year-old professor and founder of the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology at Leipzig University had already reached exactly the same conclusion as the Americans three years earlier - albeit via a different method.
Still, the report from America pleased him "because my research results have now been confirmed by chemists in the United States".
What is disputed now is the cause of the lead poisoning. The U.S. researchers believe that Beethoven, who in addition to increasing deafness also suffered chronic stomach and intestinal ailments, was poisoned by drinking mineral water containing lead while staying at health spas.
But Ludewig points instead to another liquid: wine. He said that back in Beethoven's days, vintners would use lead acetate in order to sweeten up what otherwise would be sour wine.
The ailments which the musical genius suffered from were chiefly derived from such doctored wine, the Leipzig professor believes.
"Being hard of hearing depressed him so much that he often would reach out for the cheap, lead acetate-doctored wine," Ludewig said, noting that Beethoven himself is recorded as having said that he certainly appreciated wine for its bolstering and consoling effects on him.
Ludewig based his research on three sources: the very detailed autopsy report after his death in 1827, autographs of the composer's, and letters and conversational booklets which Beethoven as a deaf person wrote in so as to communicate with those around him.
The autopsy report was never clearly interpreted prior to his own studies, Ludewig said. Pathologists examining Beethoven's remains described his shrunken liver as being a "greenish-blue colour and interwoven with bean-sized lumps".
The Leipzig professor, who has written a standard work, used internationally, about poisoning, says that a cirrhosis of the liver with lumps of that size is not caused by alcohol abuse, but instead clearly is the result of lead.
"You can quite clearly differentiate between the two types of cirrhosis of the liver," Ludewig said.
As to the hand-written evidence, he said studies undertaken together with the handwriting analysis psychologist Roswitha Klaiber of Esslingen point in the same direction to the cause of Beethoven's sufferings. An addition which Beethoven made to his last will a few days before his death is offered as proof.
"The final handwriting makes clearly recognisable a collapse of the liver and brain function which likewise can be traced to lead poisoning," Ludewig said. "The writing of an alcoholic looks completely different."
For the Leipzig professor, there was one clear conclusion: "Although Beethoven regularly drank wine, he was not a drunk."
In one other point does he feel he has been backed up by the U.S. researchers: contrary to their expectations, they found only a tiny trace of quicksilver.
For a long time, there had been the theory that Beethoven was being treated by a lotion containing quicksilver because of an alleged syphilis ailment.
"This has been clearly disproved," Ludewig said.
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