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Lead Poisoning Unlikely Cause of Beethoven's Death

Technology helped researchers analyze bone fragments to rule out one of many theories

THURSDAY, June 3 (HealthDay News) -- Among the many health complications that have long been considered as possible contributors to the demise of world-renowned composer Ludwig van Beethoven in 1827, scientists believe they can now rule out lead poisoning.

The conclusion, not yet published, stems from a fresh analysis of Beethoven's skull fragments, conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, as well as the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.

"Ninety-five percent of lead in the adult body is stored in bone, where it stays for years, even after death," co-author Andrew Todd, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai, said in a news release. "Measuring the amount of lead in Beethoven's bone fragments allows us to reach back through time to measure his lead exposure during life."

The two fragments Todd and his colleagues examined are believed to have been initially collected by a friend of the composer, Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, when he exhumed and reburied Beethoven's corpse in 1863. In turn, von Breuning purportedly gave the fragments to a University of Vienna professor, whose family has retained the samples ever since.

The current exam follows an earlier 2000 look, also conducted by Todd, which sought to measure skull thickness, while also analyzing the surface of a small piece of skull bone.

The latest attempt to glean information utilized a technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which preserves the integrity of the examined bone. XRF exposes the sample to a small radiation dose -- described as being equal to 10 minutes of natural background radiation -- to highlight any lead stored in the bone.

The investigators found that the larger of the two fragments had 12 micrograms of lead per gram of bone mineral, an amount insufficient to support the contention that Beethoven suffered from enough lead exposure to have caused life-threatening renal failure.

"For someone who was Beethoven's age, we would expect more than that; one comparison dataset predicts 21 micrograms of lead per gram of bone mineral," Todd explained.

As one of many theories, lead poisoning had long held traction as a possible culprit in the composer's death for several reasons. For one, it is known to prompt irritability, for which Beethoven was well-known. In addition, it can cause both colic and kidney failure, both of which, alongside liver failure, have been cited as possible underlying causes of his death at the age of 56.

Some have posited that Beethoven perhaps routinely sweetened inexpensive wine with lead. Still others have found evidence of high amounts of lead in samples of the composer's hair, a sign of exposure possibly related to a surgical procedure he underwent -- that would have had to have occurred in the months immediately preceding his passing.

Yet despite plans for continued testing, the findings already seem to set aside any notion that lead was, in fact, the smoking gun.

More information

For more on lead poisoning, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

-- Alan Mozes

SOURCE: Mount Sinai School of Medicine, news release, June 2, 2010

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