December 13 —- In 1827 a young German conductor traveled to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven, and the day after his death cut a small lock of his hair to keep as a memento. In October 2000, strands from that lock of hair found their way into Argonne National Laboratory's circular electron accelerator to undergo chemical analysis. The results, announced in October, show extremely high levels of lead that may have caused Beethoven's lifelong health problems, personality disorders, and eventual death.
Physicists Ken Kemner, Derrick Mancini, and Francesco DeCarlo at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS) research facility performed nondestructive X-ray beam experiments on the hair. The scientists are developing and advancing new APS techniques to address such issues as contaminant mobility, and analyzing hair from a person who may have been exposed to high levels of a contaminant metal are extremely relevant to such research. They tested six strands of the Beethoven hairs side-by-side with a standard hair of known lead content and a standard "lead glass" thin film of known lead content. The APS circular electron accelerator (known as a synchrotron) accelerates electrons at close to the speed of light to create a thin beam of X-rays that excites electrons within a substance to reveal its elemental composition. The researchers found that the hair strands showed high lead levels averaging about 60 parts per million—about 100 times more than that of the average person. Beethoven suffered from chronic abdominal pain, irritability, and depression—all known today as symptoms of lead poisoning. He died at 56, the cause of his illness and death unclear.
With additional analysis and study, the researchers hope eventually to determine the source of the lead poisoning. Beethoven might have ingested lead from the mineral water he drank at spas, which he was known to frequent for their curative effects, or from dishes used to prepare or serve food, or from wine stored in lead-lined flasks or lead crystal. During the early 19th century lead smelting was common in Europe. Hair provides a timeline of sorts, and the Beethoven strands can indicate lead exposure during the last six months of his life.
In addition to determining lead levels, the researchers collaborated with scientists at the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Illinois, to look for distinctive trace-metal patterns associated with genius, irritability, glucose disorders, and malabsorption. They found none present in the Beethoven samples. They also found no mercury, commonly used at the time to treat Syphilis, which some Beethoven scholars had suspected and other disputed. The researchers also looked for evidence of drug metabolites but found none, indicating that Beethoven avoided opiate painkillers during his long and painful death, keeping his mind clear for his music, which he continued working on until the day he died.
Argonne's testing of the Beethoven hair was part of the Beethoven Project at the Health Research Institute, directed by former Argonne scientist William J. Walsh. Further chemical analysis was also conducted by McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, who also tested Napoleon's hair and disproved the historic notion that he was poisoned by arsenic.
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