Archive for April, 2010

Beethoven’s hair: Did he die because of alcoholism?

The best music composer ever probably was Ludwig van Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany in 1770, baptized there 17 December of that year, and died in Vienna, Austria, 26 March 1827.

Beethoven’s music by most standards represents the start of the musical Romantic period. He was ill a lot. Beethoven’s deathbed held the secrets to his youthful demise (he was 56) and unanswered questions about his death. A souvenir, a lock of hair, held the answers many centuries later.

Russell Martin wrote a book about how a lock of Beethoven’s hair that was cut from his head shortly after he died, was examined and compared with bone material that was known to be that of the composer, the DNA matched, and modern investigation methods in the US showed Beethoven’s hair contained over 40 times as much lead than is normal.

(Beethoven’s hair, Russell Martin, Broadway Books, 2001, ISBN 076790351X, 9780767903516, 276 pages)

There is a real nice documentary about the incredible journey the hair lock made through time, a lot of this journey of the lock is on the net, so I will just leave some links you really should click on. You will just have to copy and paste, for some reason linking in a post gives problems. (everything written after a link becomes part of the link.) All about the book! Really wonderful site with pictures of the main characters that played a role in the odyssey of Beethoven’s hair!

Was it lead from water pipes? here I learn that the first pipeline for water in Vienna was constructed after Beethoven’s death. The water probably came out of a well in his days. So that is not the cause I think.

Now one of the things Russell Martin suggested to be the cause of so much lead in Beethoven’s body, was the use of pencils. Pencil = Blestift in German, Blei meaning lead, potlood in Dutch, lood meaning lead. Licking on a pencil might have been the cause.

But pencils, also the ones in that period of time, are made of graphite. Graphite doesn’t contain any lead.
“Some time before 1565 (some sources say as early as 1500), an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. This remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought to be a form of lead. Consequently, it was called plumbago (Latin for “lead ore”).The black core of pencils is still referred to as lead, even though it never contained the element lead.”

Wine however, also mentioned by Martin, was sweetened by lead. BUT: Long before Beethoven lived, it already was known that lead caused illness and it was forbidden to sweeten wine with lead!

“Engraving of 1630(?) painting from Nuremberg, showing city officials escorting a wagon of confiscated wine casks to the river for dumping. In view of the serious consequences of some forms of wine adulteration, the punishments for adulterating wines were non-existent or remarkably lenient from Roman times until the seventeenth century and rarely exceeded confiscation, money fines and public shaming. Beginning with the Wurttemberg edict of 1695, the use of lead-based wine additives became a capital offence in several regions of Germany.”

Beethoven must have known that he had to avoid lead; his doctors surely knew? So suggestions that lead was used in the medicins of those days: I don’t know. The knowledge lead was bad, was there already, so I doubt it? But it has to come from somewhere!

I read in Martins book that Beethoven drunk 3 bottles of wine a day, a bottle with every meal. Now the alcohol percentage in wine in those days was not as high as it is these days (about 14 %) but still, it would have been a lot of alcohol for his liver to deal with. He had hepatitis, and other health issues that suggest he was an alcoholic, the fact he drank so much wine surely states he was, but so far I have never read anything saying that Beethoven was a boozer. Because it is not nice to say about the best composer ever, perhaps?

So it may have been lead, it may have been alcohol too? Very interesting article, here it says he was not an alcoholic, but he did like drinking. ? ” Although it was already illegal, sugar of lead was widely used to sweeten sour wines. Despite of its recognized toxicity, lead acetate was used in the treatment of cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, bronchitis, asthma, whooping-cough, pneumonia, skin diseases, boils, wounds, etc. Beethoven was not an alcoholic, but he liked drinking, and he had a preference for sweet wines. His abdominal ailments were treated with various remedies…”

So was it in his wine, his meds, or in both, in spite of its recognized toxicity? I really can’t imagine that, but it looks that way. It could have been from the pottery, the kitchen utensils.

I am starting to think the lead may have gotten in the hair AFTER the death of the composer. Before it was put in the locker, in the early 20th century, where was it kept in?? I know there are coffins made of lead, for some reason (to preserve the body?) What did Hiller do with the hair, he might have thought he needed to preserve it somehow?

Any way, “Beethoven’s hair” is a nice book to read, very interesting, but there is not much information about Beethoven’s music itself. There is mentioning of a book Beethoven had when he became deaf, which he used to communicate with visitors. Now I wonder what happened to that book. If I ever find out, I will write it here.

Toussaint, hartelijk gefeliciteerd :)

Lang zal hij leven in de gloria
Al 62 jaar vertoef je op deze aarde
en tussen jou en mij:
je bent een toegevoegde waarde.

Hopelijk vier je deze dag,
zoals jij dat graag doet
en dus een knuffel en een kus
op je lieve snoet.

Misschien werd je liever 26, ja dat is jammer dan meneer
maar je moet maar zo bedenken! 62 wordt je nimmer meer 🙂

De zon schijnt en de vogels zingen,
we gaan er op uit, en doen leuke dingen.

Of blijven thuis en zien wel wie er komen
In ieder geval, stof genoeg om over te bomen.


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