Update on skull bones

Corrections and Additions to Bruce Newman’s San Jose Mercury News online and printed versions of his article (July 22-24, 2015) on the Kaufmann Skull Fragments

William Meredith, Director, Beethoven Center (July 24, 2015)

 I regret that a San Jose Mercury News reporter who is neither an expert in medical science or in music history was assigned to cover this story. A key premise of the story, reflected in the inaccurate headline of the online July 23rd version, is false (“San Jose State: Dem Bones most likely not Beethoven’s”). The alternate headline in the printed paper (“Blow to SJSU Center: Finding Casts Shadow Over Celebration of 30th Anniversary / Analysis Refutes Skull Fragments as Beethoven’s”), is an improvement, but it still is false as Dr. White’s discovery is not at all a “blow” to the Center. When we began the forensic work on hair (1995) and bone samples (1999) that were claimed to be from Beethoven, we operated from the principle of “follow the science.” The Center has never owned the skull fragments, had them on loan for an extended period, or displayed them publicly. Dr. White’s discovery is important in the forensic study of Beethoven’s health because it rules out their use as sources for the answers that may one day be found through DNA analysis.

Four principal errors and one important deliberate omission in the article should be corrected and clarified.

1. The temporary loan of the fragments to the Center had absolutely nothing to do with the Center being labeled Beethoven’s “third home.” That label was first applied to the Beethoven Center because it owns the largest collection of Beethoven first and early editions, manuscripts, rare books, artwork related to Beethoven and his times, and other documents in the United States. Mr. Newman’s article, which I was told would focus on the Center’s 30th anniversary and work, says nothing about the Center‘s founding and history, its collections, the creation of The Beethoven Gateway and The Beethoven Journal, its decades of research, and its work promoting Beethoven’s humanitarian ideals and music that continue to inspire people around the world. The volunteer grant writer for the Center, Ted Lorraine, first used the term “Beethoven’s third home” in 2010 or 2011 in an arts grant application to the City of San José, long after the fragments had been returned to the Kaufmanns at their request.

2. I did not “declare” the skull fragments to be authentic in 2005. The fragments had been declared to be Beethoven’s “with greatest probability” in 1985—the year the Beethoven Center opened—by two Viennese physicians, who misdiagnosed the identity of one of the fragments as a parietal rather than a frontal bone. No researchers in the field of science or Beethoven studies had questioned their authenticity between 1985 and 2005, so their authenticity had never been called into question, and there was no need for me to “declare” that they were Beethoven’s. The purpose of the 2005 Beethoven Journal article was to trace the history (provenance) of the bones through the illustrious Kaufmann family, beginning with Romeo Seligmann, the first professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, through Romeo’s son Adalbert Seligmann (a famous painter), to Adalbert’s nephew Thomas Desmines, to Paul Kaufmann (Danville, California).

3. The online headline states that the Kaufmann skull fragments are “most likely not Beethoven’s” and that this discovery came from SJSU. World-renowned osteologist and anthropologist Dr. Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the fragments on February 17, 2012, as part of one of his undergraduate osteology classes at UCB. He discovered that the bone fragment that was misidentified in 1985 by two Viennese doctors cannot be from Beethoven because it is a right frontal bone and shows no sign of ever having been sawn through during a craniotomy. Beethoven’s autopsy report states that the doctor sawed off the top of Beethoven’s skull and that he removed the ear bones. The saw cut, which was described as “very rough,” can be seen in the photograph below.

Beethoven's skull

Photograph of the reconstruction of Beethoven's skull after the 1863 exhumation, showing the "rough" saw cut through the forehead.

Dr. White based his finding on the following five characteristics of the fragment: frontal sinus, frontal crest, undulation of the endocranial surface, coronal suture, and temporal line. In an email of March 6, 2012, to me, Dr. White wrote, “For the large piece there is absolutely no competent osteologist who could overcome the unique set of clear anatomical features that place it as right frontal so it is not a matter of ‘if’ [the bone is right frontal].”

In the spring and summer of 2012 Dr. White’s findings were verified by four other osteologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Dr. Alison Galway at the Forensic Osteological Investigations Laboratory); San Francisco State University (Dr. Mark Griffin, Bioanthropology Laboratory); and CSU-Chico (Dr. P. Willey and Dr. Eric Bartelink, Department of Anthropology). The accurate headline for both the web and printed versions should be: “Dr. Tim White (and Five Other Osteologists): Kaufmann’s Skull Fragments Not Beethoven’s.” A photograph of Dr. White holding the Kaufmann frontal fragment in its correct location on a skull is shown below.

Frontal bone

Tim White positioning the Kaufmann frontal skull fragment on an anonymous skull in his laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, to show its location (2012; photo by William Meredith).

4. The “center” did not purposefully keep the findings quiet for three years. Paul Kaufmann, the owner of the fragments, told me that he did not want Dr. White’s identification to be made public in 2012 and stated that Dr. White’s findings were his (Mr. Kaufmann’s) intellectual property. Dr. White, who made the discovery that was confirmed later that summer by five osteologists, did not release or publish his two important findings (i.e., that the parietal bone had been misdiagnosed and that it cannot be from Beethoven’s skull because it shows no signs of the craniotomy). I told Mr. Kaufman in 2012 that I would answer any questions about the bones and new research-including by the five osteologists—that were put to me, which has happened on several occasions since 2012, including with the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.

5. Deliberately omitted from Mr. Newman’s story was that the purpose of the visit to Dr. White’s laboratory in 2012 was to ask him to examine and identify approximately 15 very small pieces of bone fragments that had never been studied by any osteologist. Paul Kaufmann’s mother had referred to the bones as “ear bones.” Since Beethoven’s ear bones disappeared since soon after his autopsy, Paul Kaufmann agreed to my suggestion to have an expert examine the small pieces to see if what his mother had told him was true. If some of the fragments had indeed been from Beethoven’s ears, that analysis would have been an important discovery because we still do not know what caused the composer’s deafness. Instead, Dr. White determined that they were fragments from the larger skull fragments.

It is a shame that a story that was supposed to tell the story of the first three decades of the only Beethoven center in the United States got derailed by inaccurate reporting about one small chapter in the Center’s history—and one that is ongoing, as the reporter was told. The Center is currently engaged in a new project to collaborate with a prestigious German laboratory to sequence the composer’s DNA from strands of his hair using the latest techniques. The researchers have assured us that they will publish the data so that it will be available to all future DNA researchers and Beethoven historians.

The online version of the Mercury News story, which still contains the false headline, is at:

http://www.mercurynews.com/bay-area-news/ci_28530100/san-jose-state-famed-bones-most-likely-not

Readers interested in the story may wish to see an old Huffington Post blog entry from 3/20/2010 that was updated on 5/25/2011:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-thomson/for-sale-beethovens-skull_b_427015.html

Contacts:

Dr. Tim D. White: Timwhite@berkeley.edu
Dr. William Meredith: William.Meredith@sjsu.edu