Press Conference

Scientific Testing of Beethoven's Hair
Press Conference October 17, 2000

 

Statement by William J. Walsh, Ph.D.
Director of Beethoven Research Project
The Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center
Naperville, Illinois

Note: This statement was provided by Dr. William Walsh. The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University is reproducing this statement for informational purposes only and is not responsible for its content.


 

Introduction and Summary

Four years ago, I was asked to head a research project to analyze strands of Beethoven's hair to search for clues which might help explain the many mysteries surrounding the great composer's life. The first phase of the work has been completed, and we have found the following:

  1. High lead concentrations in Beethoven's hair were found in independent analyses by McCrone Research Institute & Argonne National Laboratory. This provides evidence that Beethoven had plumbism (lead poisoning) which may have caused his life-long illnesses, impacted his personality, and possibly contributed to his death
  2. Distinctive trace-metal patterns associated with genius, irritability, glucose disorders, and malabsorption were not present in the Beethoven samples tested by McCrone Research Institute.
  3. Absence of detectable mercury levels was reported independently by McCrone Research Institute and Argonne National Laboratory. This supports the consensus of Beethoven Scholars who believe that Beethoven never had syphilis, which was usually treated in the 1820's with mercury compounds.
  4. DNA analysis by LabCorp Corporation has defined a significant portion of Beethoven's genetic make-up. This information will be available for future research studying musical genius, deafness, etc.
  5. The absence of drug metabolites indicates that Beethoven avoided opiate pain-killers during his long and painful death. History records that Beethoven continued working on his music until the day he died. This implies that Beethoven decided to keep his mind clear for his music. (Analysis by W. Baumgartner, Psychemedics Corp.).

Beethoven's Symptoms and Plumbism

Beethoven's health was quite normal as a young musical prodigy. However in his early 20's, Beethoven developed chronic disturbing illnesses that plagued him throughout his adult life. His primary complaint was abdominal pain which he referred to as "colic". He saw many doctors in an unsuccessful attempt to end this misery. Abdominal distress is a common symptom of lead poisoning.

Beethoven's personality also transformed during his illness. This friendly and charming young man gradually became irritable, hot-tempered, socially isolated, and suffered from bouts of depression and despair. These are all classic symptoms of depression.

At age 31, Beethoven reported that he was losing his hearing. By age 42 he was nearly completely deaf. There have been a few isolated cases of deafness associated with lead poisoning, but they have been quite rare. The cause of Beethoven's deafness is still a mystery, and a continuing focus of our ongoing research.

Beethoven experienced a prolonged and painful death at his home in Vienna in the year 1827. After developing pneumonia, his abdomen became painful, distended and large amounts of fluid were drained from his kidneys, liver, and other organs. Lead poisoning is associated with kidney failure and liver disease.

Beethoven's Hair

The day after Beethoven's death, a young Jewish musician named Ferdinand Hiller snipped a large lock of the composer's hair as a keepsake. For a century, the lock of hair was a treasured family keepsake. During the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the lock of hair was given to Kay Fremming, a Danish doctor who was secretly involved in efforts to save hundreds of hunted and frightened Jews. After Fremming's death, his daughter consigned the lock of hair for auction at Sotheby's in London. The successful bidders were four Americans, Ira Brilliant (founder of the Beethoven Center in California), Che Guevara (a medical doctor living in Arizona), Tom Wendel (president of the American Beethoven Society), and fellow society member Caroline Crummey.

The new owners selected the Health Research Institute to perform non-destructive chemical tests and to direct the efforts to derive scientific information from the hair.

Chemical Analysis by McCrone Research Institute

Approximately two years were devoted to searching the worlds of forensics and analytical chemistry to identify laboratories and techniques with the greatest capability for chemical analysis of tiny objects. Every scientist and laboratory that I contacted offered to perform the chemical analysis without charge. Eventually it became clear that the world's greatest capability resided in the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, headed by the eminent Walter McCrone.

McCrone is best known for his definitive research on Napoleon's hair (proving that he was not deliberately poisoned by arsenic) and on the Shroud of Turin. Earlier this year, McCrone was honored by the American Chemical Society as "Analytical Chemist of the Year 2000".

McCrone volunteered to perform his work-class chemical analysis on Beethoven's hair as a public service. Following Dr. Walsh's recommendation, Dr. Guevara authorized the destructive chemical analysis of two Beethoven hairs by McCrones's group.

Instrumentation for the Beethoven analysis involved (1) scanning electron microscope energy dispersion spectrometry (SEM/EDS) and (2) scanning ion microscope mass spectrometry (SIMS). McCrone's laboratory performed a side-by-side analysis of the two Beethoven hairs along with three hair strands collected from living persons. The primary result was the finding of large amounts of lead in Beethoven's hair, compared to the three control samples.

Chemical Testing at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS)

In 1997, the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory completed construction of this remarkable facility, the APS, which has chemical analysis capability which is unsurpassed in the world. In September of this year, Argonne scientists Ken Kemner, Derrick Mancini, and Francesco DeCarlo performed non-destructive beam experiments involving side-by-side testing of six Beethoven hairs, a standard hair of known lead composition, and a standard "lead glass" sheet of known lead composition.

The Argonne research team found elevated lead levels in each of the six Beethoven hairs, confirming McCrone's findings.

Discussion of Results

The two hairs analyzed by McCrone and the six studied at Argonne's APS Facility all exhibited unusually high levels of lead. As expected, there was a wide variation in lead concentration from hair to hair, especially along the length of a hair. This reflects the major fluctuations in blood lead levels, as lead is deposited into growing hair.

The average lead concentration measured in the McCrone and Argonne experiments is above 60 ppm (parts-per-million), but there was great variability in t he portions of hair analyzed. We plan to determine the lead concentration more precisely in future testing of additional Beethoven hairs.

The Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville has measured hair and blood lead levels in thousands of patients. A recent study of 6205 patients showed that only 11 patients exhibited hair lead levels above 60 ppm. Many of these patients reported abdominal distress, irritability, and depression.

The Health Research Institute concludes that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning which probably caused his chronic illnesses, and may have contributed to his death.

Future Work

This investigation is continuing and will contain the following elements:

  1. Measurement of hair concentrations along the shafts of several hairs (to determine the degree of recent lead exposure)
  2. Measurement of the morphology and lead distribution within Beethoven hairs (to identify the presence of any surface effects)
  3. DNA comparisons with other materials reputed to be Beethoven relics (to better establish the authenticity of each material)
  4. Morphology and chemical studies of Beethoven skull bones (to derive additional information about Beethoven's toxic exposures and biochemistry)
  5. Continued investigation of the cause of Beethoven's deafness

Beethoven Quote from the Heilgenstadt Testament

"After my death, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to discover my disease, and attach this written document to his account of my illness so at least as much as is possible the world may be reconciled to me after my death."

Ludwig van Beethoven

From his "Heiligenstadt Testament," 1802

Summary of Beethoven Research Findings

  1. High lead concentrations in Beethoven's hair were found in independent analyses by McCrone Research Institute & Argonne National Laboratory. This is evidence that Beethoven had plumbism (lead poisoning) which may have caused his life-long illness, impacted his personality, and possibly contributed to his death.
  2. Distinctive trace-metal patterns associated with genius, irritability, glucose disorders, and malabsorption were not present in the Beethoven samples tested by McCrone Research Institute.
  3. Very low (undetectable) mercury levels were reported independently by McCrone Research Institute and Argonne National Laboratory. This provides evidence that Beethoven did not receive medical treatment for syphilis, usually treated in the 1820's with mercury compounds. This supports the consensus of Beethoven scholars who believe that Beethoven never had syphilis.
  4. DNA analysis has defined a significant portion of Beethoven's genetic make-up. This information will be available for future research studying musical genius, deafness, etc. (Analysis by LabCorp).
  5. Absence of drug metabolites indicates that Beethoven avoided opiate pain-killers during his long and painful death. History records that Beethoven continued working on his music until the day he died. This implies that Beethoven decided to keep his mind clear for his music. (Analysis by W. Baumgartner, Psychemedics Corp.).

About Lead

What is Lead?

Lead is a metallic element which is very toxic if absorbed in high amounts. Lead has no known health benefits for humans, and is associated with concentration problems, and behavior disorders. Levels below 5 mcg/dl (blood) and 3ppm (hair) are considered to be "safe". Children are especially sensitive to lead, and blood levels exceeding 10 mcg/dl should be reported to the Public Health Service. Elevated levels in blood may indicate recent exposure, whereas hair levels may reflect lead exposure from months or years past.

What are Sources of Lead?

  • Drinking water, especially from shallow wells -Lead-acid batteries
  • Contaminated soil -Insecticides and herbicides
  • Produce grown in lead contaminated soil -Gun firing ranges
  • Lead based paints, ceramics, or glassware -Lead-soldered cans
  • Lead based hair coloring -Waste incineration
  • Welding, brazing, soldering -Industrial use of lead

Note: Persons working with stained glass, ceramics, jewelry, refinished furniture, ammunition, lead-acid batteries, etc., should change clothes before going home, and these clothes should be washed separately.

What are Symptoms of Lead Toxicity?

  • Abdominal pain -Nausea -Diarrhea
  • Chronic fatigue -Anxiety -Confusion
  • Weakness -Vertigo -Tremors
  • Hyperactivity -Slowed reflexes -Loss of Appetite
  • Irritability and anger -Learned deficits -Retarded growth

Treatment for Lead Exposures:

The first step is to identify the source of lead (if still present) and eliminate additional exposures. Treatment with nutrients such as calcium, zinc, manganese, cysteine, vitamin B-6, vitamin C, and vitamin E can effectively drive the toxic lead from blood and soft tissues (including the brain). However 95% of long-term lead is stored in the bones, and the half-life of skeletal lead is about 22 years. Serious lead poisoning may require many years of treatment to cope with lead diffusing from bone into the blood stream.

About the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory

The Advanced Photon Source (APS), at Argonne National Laboratory is a national synchrotron-radiation light source research facility. The APS is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Utilizing high-brilliance x-ray beams from the APS, members of the international synchrotron-radiation research community carry out forefront basic and applied research in the fields of materials science; biological science; physics; chemistry; environmental, geophysical, and planetary science; and innovative x-ray instrumentation.

This year, more than 1500 experimenters conducted a total of 1178 experiments at the APS. These scientists represent more than 290 universities and medical schools, 47 industrial firms, and 51 federal and private research institutions from the U.S., Canada, and abroad.

The APS provides an environment in which scientists from different institutions, disciplines, and career stages can work together. Researchers (or "users') come to the APS either as members of Collaborative Access Teams (CATs) or as Independent Investigators (IIs). Collaborative Access Teams comprise large numbers of investigators with common research objectives. These teams are responsible for the design, construction, funding and operation of beamlines designed to take radiation from the APS storage ring and tailor it to meet specific experimental needs. By agreement with the APS, Collaborative Access Teams must allocate 25% of x-ray beam time to IIs, individuals or groups not affiliated with a CAT. Independent Investigator access is provided on the basis of proposals which are approved by each CAT.

University professors and students interact daily with colleagues from industry and national laboratories, exchanging ideas both formally and informally through collaborations, seminars, and impromptu discussions. These symbiotic relationships pay real dividends in enhanced research quality and scientific productivity.

HRI + Pfeiffer
The Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center
1804 Centre Point Circle. Naperville, Illinois 60563
Phone (830) 506- 0300 Fax (630) 505-1907

About Dr. William Walsh

William J. Walsh is a scientist with more than 30 years of research experience. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1958, he went on to earn a masters degree at the University of Michigan and a Doctorate in Chemical Engineering from Iowa State University.

Before founding the Health Research Institute in 1982 and, subsequently the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in 1989, Dr. Walsh worked for Atomic Research (Ames, IA); Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM); University of Michigan Research Institute (Ann Arbor, MI); Savannah River hydrogen bomb plant near Aiken, SC; and Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, IL). Dr. Walsh spent 22 years as a researcher in nuclear fuel processing, liquid metal distillation, and electrochemistry.

Over the past 25 years, Dr. Walsh and colleagues have evaluated hair chemistry data from over 100,000 individuals and developed the world's first hair standard of known composition. Walsh has performed more than 25 forensic studies of hair samples in collaboration with medical examiners, coroners, and police groups. These studies include chemical evaluation of Charles Manson, Henry Lee Lucas, James Hubeity (McDonald's massacre), William Sherrill (Oklahoma post office slayings), and other notorious criminals.

Dr. Walsh's interest in biochemical disorders began as a result of his volunteer work with inmates at the Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, IL, where he organized the Prisoner Assistance Program that included more than 100 volunteers. He was named "Prison Volunteer of the Year" of Metropolitan Chicago in 1983. This work led Dr. Walsh and other Argonne volunteers in initiate scientific research that indicated a biochemical predisposition to behavior disorders. That research formed the basis of the diagnostic and treatment protocols being used at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville, IL. The non-profit Center has provided individualized nutrient therapy to more than 14,000 patients with behavior disorders. ADHD, learning problems, autism, depression and schizophrenia.

Dr. Walsh has authored more than 200 scientific articles and reports and made numerous presentations on his research. He has presented HRI's research findings at the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Senate, the Society of Neuroscience, NAMI, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Walsh presently serves as Chief Scientist of the Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center.