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December 08, 2005

Beethoven's skull

Only 8 shopping days until Beethoven's birthday, but here's a gift right now: A team of scientists has tested fragments of Beethoven's skull and confirmed that the composer suffered from lead poisoning.

Several years ago, tests that were conducted on Beethoven's hair also found lead poisoning, but some didn't trust the results.

In 2000, tests of Beethoven's hair at southwest suburban Argonne National Laboratory showed he had lead concentrations roughly 100 times higher than levels found in healthy adults today.

But hair analysis is not scientifically conclusive. Moreover, skeptics said, hair samples used in the test could have been contaminated by, for example, hair powder, dirt or grease.
So the tests were conducted on fragments of his skull. No one yet has a firm grasp of how Beethoven was poisoned.
But what caused the lead poisoning remains a mystery. Among the theories, all unproven: Beethoven drank wine or ate fish contaminated with lead. There was lead in his favorite pewter cup. He was poisoned by drinking and bathing in mineral water at a spa. Or perhaps Beethoven had a defect that made his body unable to remove lead.
There's an interesting interview of the lead scientist (ha!) on PBS, which can be found here.