Wednesday, 3 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 9 Eroica (2)

In 1994 Sotheby's, the London auction house, offered for sale a most unusual item: a lock of Beethoven's hair. Its provenance, history and authenticity were well attested. It had been snipped the day after Beethoven's death in 1827 by a 15-year-old lad called Ferdinand Hiller. Hiller, who grew up to become enormously fat, a Christianized Jew and a sort of director of music in that very Cologne whose noxious dust I had been so glad to shake from my sandals, had the hair set in a locket, which eventually he passed on his son. The subsequent history is told in Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.

The lock of hair, mostly brown with a few strands of grey, was bought by two Americans. A small sample was sent for forensic analysis under the most stringent conditions. The results were extraordinary and utterly unexpected.

Did Beethoven have syphilis? Beethoven commentators have often concluded that syphilis was the underlying cause of his poor health and relatively early death. Before the development of Salvarsan in 1908 and the later discovery of pencillin, the usual treatment for syphilis involved various compounds of mercury. Post-treatment residual mercury lodges in several places in the body including the hair. The Beethoven sample showed no trace whatever of residual mercury.

Throughout his adult life Beethoven complained bitterly of pain, particularly towards the end and during his final illness. In 1827 as today, the most effective pain-killers were opiates, specifically laudanum, a mixture of opium with alcohol, often brandy. Despite laudanum being readily available, there is no record of his doctors, Wawruch and Malfatti, prescribing anything other than iced alcoholic punch. There was no trace, either, of any residual opiate in Beethoven's hair. The conclusion is that he refused pain-killers. Indeed, Wawruch produced a post-mortem report some weeks after Beethoven's death stating that he refused any kind of medication other than the iced punch.

The surprise residual element was lead. The concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair was 42 times greater than that found in control hairs, a vast difference. The conclusion was that by the time of his death and very probably for many years before Beethoven had suffered very severely from lead poisoning. Lead is very toxic. Lead poisoning, also known as saturnism or plumbism, leads to all but one of the symptoms Beethoven complained of. While there have been cases of lead poisoning affecting hearing, the possible link between lead poisoning and Beethoven's deafness remains to be conclusively established.

Where had this concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair come from? It's unlikely to have come from water-pipes, because Beethoven moved from one lodging to another so frequently. His household and kitchen effects, catalogued after his death, included very little containing lead, certainly not in quantities to account for the massive levels of lead Beethoven ingested. The answer probably lies in the amount of wine he drank. In the later years of his life, at least, it was normal for him to drink an entire bottle in the course of a meal. While he was never reported to be drunk, his thirst was notorious among his friends. The effect on his liver was probably no less disastrous than the amount of lead he consumed.

He seems to have been victim of a practice prevalent at times thoughout wine-producing Europe. In years and in areas deprived of enough sunshine to develop the sugar content in the grapes, it was the practice to sweeten the vintage to make it more acceptable to the taste. Before the widespread introduction of cane sugar from the West Indies, there were only two methods of sweetening otherwise bitter foodstuffs. The addition of honey was one, and the other, by which wine kept its characteristic taste and ability to complement certain dishes, and also to keep longer, was to add a bizarre compound: lead oxide (PbO), or litharge, treated with acetic acid, most commonly found in vinegar. The resulting lead acetate or diacetate (Pb(C2H3O2)2), to be exact), is whitish and crystalline, has a sweetish taste - it's sometimes called sugar of lead - and is very toxic.

As far as I know no research has been done into the correlation of sunshine and corresponding strength of natural and artificial sugars in Austrian and Rhenish vintages (Beethoven was particularly fond of wines from his native Rhineland) in Beethoven's wine-drinking lifetime, and it's difficult to imagine how this might be done. We're left with the conjecture that Beethoven did not contract syphilis; that he systematically but unwittingly poisoned himself with lead; that without a tough constitution he might have died earlier; and that lead poisoning may have contributed to or even caused his deafness.

Unconnected with Beethoven's hair, similar tests were carried out in the late 1990s on samples of his bone tissue. If I reveal where they came from, and in what circumstances, it would spoil the end of this account. But the results and the conclusions to be drawn were exactly the same: no mercury, so little likelihood of syphilis; no opiates, so a tendency to put up with pain, or to mask it in some other way; but massive concentrations of lead.


Geoff said...

Did he also chew pencils when composing?

And stick them in his ears to get the wax out?

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

It wouldn't surprise me, Geoff. I expect that's why he's now decomposing.

Dave said...

Aha! I have been doing a little research into the weather in this period (for the second edition of my book).

A volcanic eruption in Iceland which started in 1783 may have had a direct effect on the UK and parts of Western Europe. The gases, sulphuric acid aerosols, and possibly ash from the eruption were carried over Britain by the weather systems at that time. This 8 month-long eruption from a line of volcanic vents 27 km in length, known as a fissure eruption, also produced the largest lava flow on Earth of the past 1000 years, which covered about 500 square kilometres in southern Iceland.

Conditions are right for air masses containing volcanic ash or gas to affect Britain when there is an atmospheric high pressure system over the British Isles (and/or the Western European mainland) and the air masses coming from the west are drawn into and down upon our region.

This is what happened in the summer of 1783. The older Eldgjá eruption may have lasted six years, so sometime during that period the wind systems must have been right for spreading the volcanic effluents over every part of Europe.

when Laki erupted, lower-level gases, and the aerosols generated from them, moved eastwards towards Europe bringing the tremendous “dry fogs” that affected the continent for months after the beginning of activity, whereas stratospheric-high injections of sulphur dioxide gas lead to a long-lasting aerosol cloud that moved from East to West around the global atmosphere. This cloud was resident for 2-3 years after the eruption and led to, or accentuated the record-breaking cold winters of 1783-4 and 1784-5, and the cool summer of 1784.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Dave, this is fantastic and I do thank you most sincerely. No blogger - of this type - could ask for more, or a more welcome involvement.

While writing this post I was turning over in my mind the known cases of adulteration of wine, almost always with a view to sweetening a thin or acid vintage. Several cases of addition of anti-freeze came to mind, especially the famous Austrian case of 1985, which concerned sweet white wines from the Burgenland, the province just to the south-east of Vienna. (Apparently anti-freeze tastes sweet but is extremely toxic: pets have died after licking up spilt anti-freeze on garage floors, and it's been used to murder on occasions. Just to add to the mix, ingestion of ethylene glycol has been known to cause deafness.) It was interesting to discover that ethylene glycol - and diethylene glycol, if any chemists are reading this - have the same sweet taste as the lead acetate of B.'s day. There's some literature on the subject, but not enough to make correlation between climate conditions, adulteration practices in early 19th century Austria, B.'s drinking habits and his medical history any more than conjecture.

Good luck with your research - if this is a sample of it, Mark II will be even more authoritative than Mark I.

Tenon_Saw said...

9th December, Milton's birthday; he who wrote 'Lap me in soft Lydian airs'. I cannot claim to have known this except that I heard it being read on Radio 3 as I drove home!

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Aha! Well done, Mr T-S.

L'Allegro is a poem I've always taken the greatest pleasure from. It's so irrepressibly cheerful, a wonderful tonic.

Tim Footman said...

Wasn't Napoleon (about whom Beethoven expressed some stern opinions later in life) killed by the lead fumes given off by his wallpaper? Or something like that?

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Tim: Yes, I believe so, and if true it's ironic to say the least that Napoleon should meet his end through the same element - lead - which in bullet form caused the slaughter of so many in the course of the Napoleonic wars.

There's another school of thought which claims that he died through ingestion of the arsenic used to produce the bright blue in the flowers printed on his St Helena bedroom wallpaper. I'm not certain how this came to be, unless he was in the habit of licking his wallpaper (in a way reminiscent of the prisoners in Waugh's Decline and Fall taking furtive bites at cabbages during their exercise time), but it doesn't have quite the same sense of nemesis.

Dave said...

Latest research suggests that Napoleon died from an advanced case of gastric cancer and not arsenic or lead poisoning.

An autopsy at the time determined that stomach cancer was the cause of his death. But some arsenic found in 1961 in the ruler’s hair sparked rumors of poisoning.

However, a new study — combining current medical knowledge, autopsy reports, Bonaparte’s physician memoirs, eyewitness accounts, and family medical histories — found that gastrointestinal bleeding was the immediate cause of death.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Thank you, Dave. Prosaic and probable, if less sensational than lead or arsenic explanations. It also distances Sir Hudson Lowe and his staff from any of the conspiracy theories which are as rife in France as elsewhere.

(There's also a theory, with which I'm sure you're familiar, that on the eve of Waterloo Napoleon took a strong dose of laudanum to deaden the pain which may have been gastrointestinal. He was therefore not at his best the next day...any ideas?)