Science helps unravel ills of Beethoven

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About five years ago, William Walsh welcomed into his office a man who had a strange mystery to unravel. The man opened a metal box, laid out a swath of green felt and placed a few bone fragments on the fabric.

They were pieces of a skull that had surrounded one of the greatest musical minds of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven's. At least, that's what the visitor said.

On Tuesday morning, Walsh stood at a lectern at Argonne National Laboratory, near Darien, and verified what some had suspected about the great composer who was plagued for three decades by digestion problems, chronic abdominal pain, irritability and depression: He had died from lead poisoning.

So confounded and distressed by his plight, which also included extremely foul body odor and halitosis, Beethoven left written requests that a physician examine his body after his death to determine the cause of his demise in hope of saving others from the same fate.

Using advanced X-ray technology at Argonne, scientists helped confirm that Beethoven, who died in 1827 at age 56, had 60 times more lead in his system than what is considered average today.

"Now, 178 years later, we're finally fulfilling the request of Ludwig van Beethoven," Walsh said. "There were a few bureaucratic obstacles to leap over."

But the obstacles--which included finding a lab that could test the skull fragments thoroughly without damaging them and then getting approval to do the work--were conquered almost three years ago when Walsh teamed with Argonne physicists Ken Kemner, Derrick Mancini and Francesco DeCarlo.

Validating the authenticity of the bones was more complicated. It wasn't exactly "The Da Vinci Code," but the saga had moments of scientific, artistic and historic drama.

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