Tag Archives: lead poisoning

What did Beethoven die from?


Ludvig van Beethoven(1780- 1827), one of my favorite composers, wrote some of the most sublime music in the western tradition. His inspiring music is still very popular among classical music enthusiasts, especially his symphonies. I often listen to his music on my long runs.

At the same time that he was producing one masterpiece after another, he was in extremely poor health. He famously started going deaf(likely due to Paget’s disease) in his late 20s, only to become completely deaf by his early 40s. Besides this, he had serious digestive problems, abdominal pain, chronic bronchitis, and depression. His deafness also apparently drove him to alcoholism.

And yet even after he became deaf, instead of just giving up he continued to compose. Isolated from the outside world due to deafness and living inside his head, he lived only for his music, he became one with his music. He wrote some of his most powerful music while deaf. Besides his symphonies, one of my favorite pieces from his last years is his string quartet #14(op. 131). I highly recommend it, unless you have a problem with sad music(it is mostly the opening which is sad).

To get back on topic of what did Beethoven die from, there have been several different theories advanced over the years by experts. It is difficult to attribute his death to one cause since he suffered from many different diseases, however, lead poisoning(his temper, mood disorder, and digestive disorders suggest lead poisoning) was one of the most popular theories for a long time, along with syphilis.

By focusing the most powerful X-ray beam in the Western Hemisphere on six of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hairs and a few pieces of his skull, scientists have gathered what they say is conclusive evidence that the famous composer died of lead poisoning.
“There’s no doubt in my mind . . . he was a victim of lead poisoning,” said Bill Walsh, an expert in forensic analysis and chief scientist at Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Ill., who led the study with energy department researcher Ken Kemner.
Well, there we have it, Beethoven died from lead poisoning. Oh no, wait a minute, it looks like some experts disagree:

Five years ago tests on different strands of Beethoven’s hair and a tiny piece of his skull again pointed to lead. That, Beethoven scholars said, could have explained his infamous temper and his occasional memory slips. Some figured he had drunk too much cheap wine that was sweetened — in the custom of the 19th century — with lead to hide the bitterness.

But last week a lead-poisoning expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York tested the same piece of Beethoven’s skull that had been examined in 2005, along with another, larger, fragment. The researcher, Dr. Andrew C. Todd, said that over all he had found no more lead than in the average person’s skull.

It looks like we may never know for sure what lead to his death. It’s incredible how he was able to produce so much incredible, lofty music in such a wretched state. Or is intense suffering a requirement for creativity? If the medical treatments we have today for whatever Beethoven suffered from were available in Beethoven’s time, and he was cured and his pain taken away, would his music have been less profound and timeless? Do sickly or mentally disturbed individuals make better artists?

Calcium blocks lead absorption

Everyone knows about calcium. I don’t think it is really necessary to list why it is so important for human health, but I’ll say it anyway – it is needed to build strong bones, as well as for proper functioning of the heart and muscles. Lack of calcium can even lead to heart failure in the elderly. It also has many other functions, but these are its most important duties. While you can get calcium from milk, leafy green vegetables like kale and collard greens are even better sources.

What isn’t as well known is that calcium can block the absorption of lead, which is very toxic even in small doses. This is yet another reason you should make sure you are getting enough calcium. This is especially important in communities where children are exposed to lead, since it can permanently damage the brain.

According to the Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet- Human Nutrition and Food Management:

An adequate calcium intake can protect against lead poisoning. It has been observed in animals and humans that both the absorption and retention of lead decreases as calcium intake increases. Many children at risk for exposure to excess lead are also those who live at the poverty level, and may consume a diet with insufficient calcium. Therefore, increasing consumption of low-cost calcium rich foods can reduce the severity of the effects of lead exposure.

Why lead exposure in young children is especially problematic:

Epidemiologic studies of children show that those exposed to lead, even low levels of lead, may have a lower IQ, learning disabilities, behavioral abnormalities and kidney damage. Cognitive and growth defects also may occur in infants whose mothers are exposed to lead during pregnancy. Lead intoxication is a widespread problem. One of every nine children under six years of age has blood lead levels high enough to be at risk. In 1970, an estimated 3 million children aged less than 6 years had blood lead levels associated with adverse health events. Children in older, inner-city neighborhoods are more likely to be affected, but children in suburban and rural areas are at risk too.

There are a lot of ways to ensure you are getting enough calcium, but make food your primary source. While you can get calcium from dairy, vegans or people with lactose intolerance require another source. Luckily, the bioavailability of calcium in kale is even higher than the calcium in milk. It must be noted that while spinach has a lot of calcium, spinach also has a lot of oxalic acid which can block calcium absorption. Therefore, do not rely on spinach or other high oxalic acid foods for calcium(kale is a low oxalic acid vegetable). Oxalic acid also contributes to kidney stones.

Increasingly, many foods and beverages are fortified with calcium, like orange juice and rice milk for example. Also make sure you get enough vitamin D to absorb the calcium. If you have very young children, do all you can to make their environment lead free, besides making sure they get enough calcium. Don’t forget that lead tastes sweet.

Lead poisoning in children