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August 28, 2007

Beethoven's doctor

I wonder what the statute of limitations is on med-mal actions in Austria.

Because the latest theory is that Beethoven's death from lead poisoning was the result of actions taken by his doctor.

The article in the Beethoven Journal, published by San Jose State University's Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, lays the composer's crash at the feet of Dr. Andreas Wawruch and his bedside remedies. His demise at 56 put an end to years of depression and mysterious physical ailments, but, according to the article, it didn't have to happen when it did.
Here is a little elaboration of the findings:
Charting the composer's final four months through the hairs, Reiter established day-by-day correlations between Beethoven's bedside medical treatments at the hands of Wawruch and lead concentrations in the composer's body: A dramatic spike in the concentrations follows each of the doctor's five treatments between Dec. 5, 1826 and Feb. 27, 1827, according to Reiter.

He theorizes that Wawruch, treating Beethoven for pneumonia that December, administered a medicine containing lead, as many medicines did at the time. Within days, Beethoven's stomach became terribly bloated, leading Wawruch to puncture his patient's abdomen four times in the next two months. Gallons of fluid drained out, some of it spilling into the bedding; Beethoven complained about the bugs and the odor.

Reiter's suspicion is that the sticky poultices applied to the puncture wounds contained soapy lead salts, as they often did early in the 19th century; the salts would have been absorbed into the bloodstream, spiking lead levels.
I have to say I was amused by the responses to this research, though I guess it's not too surprising:
For musicologists, the very idea that Beethoven's death was an accident, and that his life might possibly have been extended, is shocking: "What else could he have composed?" asked William Meredith, director of San Jose State's Beethoven center, the only research center in North America devoted to Beethoven. "Because if you can extend Beethoven's life by a year, you could have had two more string quartets. He was working on a string quintet when he got sick. And then there are the famous sketches for his Tenth Symphony."
It's a little like saying, "You know, if Lou Gehrig hadn't suffered from, uh, Lou Gehrig's disease, can you imagine what the Yankees would have been like?"

I mean, medical science was a little like witchcraft in those days. (I'm speaking of Beethoven again.) The life expectancy was short. All things considered, I'd say that the man had a pretty good run.

(via BOTWT)