Beethoven died of lead poisoning–or did he?

Did lead kill Beethoven?

Timeline, 2005 and 2010: Literary folk have often noted the passion and emotion of Ludwig van Beethoven’s works. Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, became “peevish” after playing Beethoven, and of course there’s the famous hooligan Alex from A Clockwork Orange, who was roused to stunning displays of violence after hearing “Ludwig van.” Given Beethoven’s own behavior, which was punctuated by violent rages, frequent sudden outbursts, and wandering the streets humming loudly, it’s not surprising that his music would communicate his passion.

A heavy metal influence?

A study in 2005 (news release here) yielded results that suggested that much of his anger, however, was attributable to the effects of heavy metal…specifically, lead. Beethoven became sick in his 20s (he also went deaf in his 20s), and suffered until his death at the age of 56 from a variety of illnesses, including chronic diarrhea and other stomach ailments. His death was lingering and painful, and some people thought that he had suffered from syphilis. Yet now many of his symptoms fit the classic description of slow lead poisoning. Among the effects of lead poisoning are irritability, aggressive behavior, headaches, and abdominal pain and cramping, all of which Beethoven experienced.

Doctor to businessmen to Sotheby’s to science

Some samples of the great composer’s hair and skull are available today for sophisticated testing for metals. A Viennese doctor apparently snagged a few fragments of his skull 142 years ago and the pieces eventually made their way through the family to a California businessman. The hairs were cut by a student soon after Beethoven died and ended up at a Sotheby’s auction. A few years ago, tests on the hairs suggested that Beethoven’s body harbored high levels of lead—hair accumulates and retains such toxins better than any other tissue—but because the testing method destroyed the hair, further tests were not completed.

Wobbling electrons solve the mystery?

Since that time, a powerful new X-ray technique has become available. The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory owns the X-ray. In the facility, subatomic particles fly through a tubular tunnel almost at the speed of light, emitting as they travel X-rays 100 times brighter than the sun’s surface. These X-rays can bounce off of the surface of even a tiny sample. As they bounce off of the sample, electrons wobble out of place, releasing energy in a pattern that is specific to the atom being bombarded.

Researchers were interested in Beethoven’s hair and skull pieces. The team that evaluated the samples actually works on developing bacteria that can take up heavy metals and render them relatively harmless; such organisms would be useful in environmental detoxification. They placed Beethoven’s hair in their high-powered X-ray. The electrons wobbled and the pattern indicated that Beethoven was simply full of lead. In fact, they reported that the poor man had about 60 parts per million of lead in his body, which is 100 times normal levels. It certainly was enough to make a person manifest the various symptoms that characterized most of Beethoven’s life.

The team also looked for a pattern that arsenic would emit, and they found none. This result seemed to exonerate Beethoven from having had syphilis, since arsenic would have been the treatment of choice for such an ailment.

Not so fast

At the time the study results were revealed, ideas about how did Beethoven built up so much lead abounded. Some suggested that  his body was less able than normal to rid itself of the heavy metal, through which he’d have been exposed by many channels. His stomach problems and temperament led him to consume much wine, and the vessels for drinking wine contained lead. In addition, his medicines probably were stored in lead-lined bottles or vials, and he may well have visited spas—for his health, ironically—at which he consumed or swam in mineral water containing lead. In one report, Beethoven’s poor doctor was identified as the likely culprit in his demise.

Fast-forward five years to 2010. A deeper analysis (news release here) of the bone fragments from Beethoven’s school indicated that his lead levels were not that spectacular. The bone is the reservoir for most of the lead the body takes up, and Beethoven’s bones simply didn’t have enough to have caused his various physical ailments. While the experts seemed to be in agreement that the results point away from lead, a new heavy metal mystery arose from the results. One skull fragment they tested had about 13 mcg of lead per gram of bone, nothing to write home about, while another sample turned up with 48 micrograms per gram, a much higher level. Nevertheless, we must look elsewhere for what killed one of the world’s greatest western composers. Ideas being tossed around include lupus and heart disease. What we do know is that he lived in terrible pain, both from his maladies and from the treatments designed to help, including pouring hot oil in his ears, according to one Beethoven scholar quoted in the New York Times.

Another wrongly accused suspect

Heavy metals have featured in other historical whodunits. For example, Napoleon reportedly died of stomach cancer during his exile on Elba, but one analysis showed that he actually died of slow arsenic poisoning, suggested to have been at the hand of his closest assistant. Then, much like Beethoven’s story, a later study showed that arsenic likely played no role in the great general’s death.

Columbus Day post: Failed Columbus settlement found no silver

Christopher Columbus

Columbus may have made his name for the history books by “finding” the Americas, but his real claim to fame may have been his world-class snake oil salesman ability. After returning from his famed voyage of 1492, Columbus bowed before his patrons, Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and spun a tale of precious metals in the new world. His fairy stories about a land of silver and gold lit a fire under the Spanish royals, leading them to finance a much larger second expedition to the New World Columbus had stumbled on.

Tall tales of silver and gold

His tall tales also attracted a huge crowd of settlers with gold in their eyes and riches on the brain. This hapless group, 1500 strong, landed on the north shore of today’s Dominican Republic in 1494, only to find a land of sand and hardship, not the streets of gold they’d expected. Catastrophe piled on top of catastrophe in the form of hunger, disease, hurricanes, and conflicts with the indigenous people. Mutiny not unnaturally followed, and four years after the settlement was established, the few hundred remaining settlers abandoned the effort and returned home.

This failed first European town in the New World left behind a treasure trove for archaeologists, however. Among the finds was about 100 pounds of galena, a lead ore containing silver. Medieval people used galena to determine how much silver a substance contained. They could create galena with a known amount of silver, or galena could be found and its silver content compared with galena containing the known amount of ore.

Why is all this galena lying around?

For many years, scholars had thought that the galena found at the settlement, which its founders had called La Isabela after the financier queen, was the result of the settlers’ discovery of silver in the area. The odd thing was, no settler ever left a written record of such a discovery. Given the 100 pounds of it and the detailed records people on such expeditions tended to leave, such a find usually would have earned a mention.

In addition to the pounds of galena, researchers also found several hundred pounds of slag, which turned out to be lead silicate with flecks of silver in it. This slag also could have been the result of settlers’ attempts to extract silver from a local discovery. But again, there was no mention in the record of what would have been a significant operation, given the 400-plus pounds of slag. The galena and slag were discovered near a building that was used to store royal property.

Starving and desperate for silver

To address the discrepancy between the written record and archeological inference, a group of researchers applied chemical analysis to the galena and slag and compared it to known samples of Caribbean ores. They found that the galena and slag did not come from a Caribbean location and instead probably traveled with the settlers from Spain. The researchers speculate that the settlers, starving and desperate, were frantically trying to extract silver from items in the royal coffers.

Supporting this idea is the fact that the lead in the galena would normally have been more useful to them, for things like musket balls or supports for a ship. The waste, in the form of the lead silicate slag, was of no use to them at all.

An expert in medieval chemistry told the researchers that people of that era commonly mixed galena with ores they thought might contained a precious metal, using galena with a known quantity as a marker for how much gold or silver their discovered ore contained. This explanation may provide the reason the settler had galena with them in the first place.

Ancient Peruvian beer breweries

Rich Peruvian women brewed beer

When it comes to drunken women, the Peruvians have always been different. In many societies, women are not supposed to drink at all. They certainly aren’t supposed to get knee-walking, rip-roaring drunk, matching shot for shot with a man. It’s generally considered unladylike, and these days, studies keep coming out indicating that overimbibing may have more adverse effects on women’s health than it does on men’s.

But the Peruvians of today, especially those living in the Andes, indulge in equal-opportunity carousing. It appears that they simply are following a tradition that may be more than 1000 years old.

What drove agriculture? Beer or bread, naturally

A few years ago, archaeologists discovered large broken vats on top of a 8000-foot-high mesa, Cerro Baul, in the Peruvian Andes. Among the vats were the remnants of smaller vessels and some shawl pins that belonged to noblewomen of the Wari people, a pre-Incan civilization that suddenly disappeared about 1000 years ago. From about 600 AD to 1000 AD, however, the civilization flourished around Cerro Baul. Nobles lived on the mountaintop, and farmers and middle-class artisans and technicians lived and worked in the valleys below.

The researchers felt that they must have stumbled across one of the world’s ancient breweries. Breweries attract anthropologists and historians because beer competes with bread as the driving force behind the development of agriculture. Every civilization appears to have brewed, usually using grains like wheat and barley. Some of the oldest suspected breweries date back as far as 3000 BC in Egypt, and suspected breweries have also been discovered in what is now Iraq.

But the equivocal “suspected” is what makes the Peruvian find so delicious. Ancient breweries defy clear identification because the beer was brewed from the same grains used to make bread; thus, it is difficult to distinguish the cereal-based residue on pot fragments as the result of brewing vs. baking. What the brewery-hunters of the world needed was a civilization that used some unusual ingredient in its beer, something that they didn’t also use in their bread. And they found it in the Wari people of ancient Peru.

Corn fermented, pepper-flavored beer

Even today, native Peruvian beer stands out among the world’s brews. It is fermented from corn and flavored with berries from the pepper tree. No other beer in the world has this combination, and the Peruvians apparently do not use the pepper tree to make bread. This concoction, called “chicha” today, is apparently very like what the Wari people brewed high on their mesa 1000 years ago.

The researchers latched onto pepper tree residues as the ingredient that would allow them to definitively identify an ancient brewery. The pepper berries contain a compound called oxalic acid that can adhere to ceramic pottery for centuries. Using techniques like liquid chromatography, they were able to confirm that this compound was indeed present in the large vats on Cerro Baul.

Wild, ancient Peruvian bacchanal

They had suspected as much. The vats themselves were huge and obviously designed to hold liquid. The surprise was that the brewery and the vats appeared to have been destroyed in a single night of carousing just before the Wari abandoned their mountaintop. Researchers surmise that the nobles of the town engaged in ritual drinking and drunkenness—the big guns got the larger Wari beer steins—and then, when the ceremony ended, they destroyed their ceramic vats and set the place on fire. After the building had burned to the ground, the nobles placed jewelry on top of the remains, possibly to identify it as a sacred place.

Interestingly, among the destruction, the archaeologists found the noblewomen’s shawl pins. They surmise that the women may have brewed the beer; in later Incan civilizations, upper-class women brewed beer, and only upper-class people drank chicha with the pepper-tree flavor added.

Of course, you have to taste test it

When it was active, the brewery may have produced hundreds of gallons of beer a week. In an effort to experience the flavor, some archaeologists recreated the ancient concoction and report that it is not quite as dark as a modern-day stout, and has sweet, peppery flavor with a bitter finish.

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